Before coming to Children’s Surgical Centre, I had read up on the rich and complex history of Cambodia like many travellers. Unfortunately, no history lesson of Cambodia can be complete without describing the atrocities that occurred before, during and after the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. However, it was not until I set foot in Phnom Penh and CSC, that I fully understood the extent to which those tragic years had shaped the nation we see today. Decades on, the effects of war and famine are still remembered vividly by those who grew up in the period. Speaking to one of the older members of staff at CSC, he describes being a teenager in school when the bombs first started raining down. Sometimes, he and his 11-year-old schoolmates would have to jump out of the window and hide in ditches on the side of the road. As he grew older, he enlisted in the army as a medic to help save those on the battlefield. He had learnt to shoot a gun but never fired it in war. He says that this was where he was first exposed to surgery (such a far cry from those of us who learnt surgery in a textbook). The very skills he learnt on the battlefield he now uses for the patients that come to CSC. He tells me and one of the young local staff how lucky we are; he says that he hopes he never sees fighting like that in his lifetime again. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully understand how lucky I am to have never had to go through war.
The devastation brough on by the Khmer Rouge has not only left emotional scars but also physical ones; physical scars we still see to this day at CSC. One of the first patients I saw had come in because a wound on his right leg was painful. Examining this man in his 60s, we saw a large scar with the obvious signs of infection coursing through it. We asked him how this injury had come about. He answered ‘gunshot’. We asked, ‘from who?’. He answered, ‘enemies’. Probing further, we found out that he had been during the regime and there was still shrapnel in his leg. The likely source of his infection. We thank him for his time and the nurse continues to clean his infected wound. Whilst the number of patients coming into CSC for injuries due to war have diminished over the years, I wonder how many live silently with their disabilities and mental trauma at home.