Wandering with the Wows: Volunteering in Cambodia- Part 1

Whenever I mention any of my volunteer work, it never fails that I always get asked one question.  

How do you find placements or organizations to volunteer with?

And I usually initially respond with “Do your research!” There are a lot of spammy volunteer organizations out there, so you definitely want to pick one that is reliable and trusted”, but after that it ultimately boils down to, “pick one spot and go”. You’ll meet a ton of other people who also volunteer and you’ll quickly get connected with other organizations and locations.

And that is exactly what happened for me.

I volunteered with the Peruvian American Medical Society in June of 2017 and meet a bunch of other volunteers who give their time and services all over the place. There are some people who do the same mission every year and that’s it, but there are also “chronic volunteers”, that volunteer constantly and have lots of different connections across the globe.

There was one doctor that I met in Peru who spends only a handful of weeks in the USA each year, but generally he is out volunteering in places like Cambodia, India, China, Nepal, etc. Super inspiring if you ask me!

If you happened to miss the post about my experience in Peru, check it out here.

While in Peru, I met a group of people who also go to Cambodia every year.  Their next trip was in January and as soon as I heard about it, I was sold.

I remember messaging Mr.Wow (he did not go on the Peru medical mission with me and was in the states at the time) telling him we were going to Cambodia in a few months. Having always wanted to go to Southeast Asia, he was on board from the second I told him.

Trip Details

This mission was very different than my mission to Peru.

First off, there were more than double the amount of volunteers. In Peru, we had about 60 American volunteers who saw roughly 1,100 patients total, while in Cambodia we had 120 American volunteers plus another 60 Cambodian medical students seeing between 800-1,000 patients every day. This was a massive increase from what I had previously experienced.

The main gate of the hospital

The amount of people that would line up outside the hospital everyday was astounding. Just ask Mr. Wow since he assisted with keeping the crowd in line.

The first day was our smallest day since people were just finding out that we were there, but every day after that got more and more busy. There were thousands upon thousands of people that lined up waiting to been seen. The line would wrap all the way around the hospital. People were trying to hop the hospital fence, cut in the line, as well as there was a lot of pushing and shoving to get the elderly and children to the front of the line. There was no holding back. It was pretty much utter chaos the entire time, despite the best efforts of the volunteers trying to contain the crowd.

Cambodia was also extremely hot.  While in Peru, we were up in the mountains making the weather rather moderate, not too cold, but not too hot either.

But didn’t you have elevation in Peru? That’s a whole other story.

Let’s just be thankful for Coca tea  :o)

Unlike Peru, Cambodia was unbearably hot the entire time.

We had minimal air conditioning at our hotel which provided nominal refuge from the blazing conditions, but the second we’d step outside, we’d already be dripping in sweat.

It was rough, being on your feet and out in the heat all day. I found myself seeking shade at any point that I could. Fresh coconuts also quickly became my best friend.

My newest best friend

Another cool part of this medical mission was that we had local monks assist our team.  They commanded the registration table, taking down names and patient information.

The monk’s registration table

Interesting fact: the monks were not allowed to touch or be touched by women, so the female volunteers had to be very careful when around them that we didn’t accidentally bump into them.

Having the monks as part of our team was really neat and they definitely added a lot. I had never had the opportunity to work alongside monks before.

What It Looked Like

Mr. Wow and I flew in to Phnom Penh a few days early to allow us time to adjust and do some sight-seeing before the mission started.  I will be writing another post to cover some of these experiences so stay tuned for that one.

Once the rest of the team arrived, we jumped in some large buses and drove the 3+ hours from the capital city to Prey Veng, a southern provence near the Vietnam border. We had a few hours there to explore the small town and get our bearings before we all met up for dinner.

One of the hotel staff members in Phnom Penh waving us off as we headed to Prey Veng

The next day we headed over to the local hospital to get set up. This included organizing, moving, and unpacking boxes of supplies, figuring out where each station was going to be located, putting out tables and chairs for the waiting and triage areas, pretty much getting everything all situated to start seeing patients the next day.

Once the medical mission started, it was off like a rocket.  By the time we arrived at the hospital the first morning, there was already a line. And that line continued to grow and grow each hour and each day.

View from inside the hospital looking out to the street

American Medicine aka the “Magic Pill”

I saw my first client early on on day 1. But it didn’t go at all how I had envisioned.

Traveling in style

One of the most difficult parts for me to stomach was this belief that many of the patients had.  They believed that the American doctors had some sort of “magic pill” that could cure any ailment.

The first client I worked with was a prime example of this.  On the first day, I worked with a young boy who had suffered from some neurological damage, resulting in him walking with a limp.  He had some contractures and range of motion limitations also.  I spent over an hour with this boy and his care taker, educating them on exercises and stretches that would help him regain some range of motion and build up strength in his foot and leg and also help him walk with a more symmetrical gait.

At the end of the session, his care taker looked at me with a frustrated look in her eyes, and asked the medical student who was helping translate where his medication was. She couldn’t understand why I was not giving him the “magic pill” to cure his ailments. I tried to explain to her that there is nothing that would cure him and that it is not in my scope of practice to prescribe drugs to people, but she just didn’t understand. She grabbed the boy and stormed out of the room, clearly upset that I didn’t give the boy any medication.

It was frustrating to say the least. Basically, all of the assistance and education that I had poured into this family was a complete waste of time since all the care taker wanted was the “magic pill”.

A little girl showing off her new toy

Leaving a Lasting Impact

The rest of the week I spent back at the main hospital.

As I’ve mentioned  in other volunteering posts, it is not only about the work that we do while we are in the country volunteering, but it is also able the lasting impact that we have on that community.

There are many organizations that provide a band-aid to the situation, take pictures of their team doing amazing work, steal jobs that could be done by the local professionals, and then just up and leave returning to their home without a care in the world.

Before even applying to be a volunteer, I do my research on the organizations to make sure that the are reliable and trustworthy.

Entering the outreach facility.
People in blue scrubs are American volunteers;
people in yellow scrubs are Cambodian medical students

My point in doing trips like these is not to put on a band-aid and make myself feel better by volunteering my time.  My point in doing these trips is to educate and empower the locals to attend to their occupational needs and health.

While in Cambodia, I always had a medical student with me when I would do my treatments to help with translating, as well as to teach them what I do as an occupational therapist.

As far as I know, occupational therapy is scarce in Cambodia. Most of the OT professionals, from what I gather, are foreign trained therapists who moved there and started clinics and organizations to help the Cambodian people.

The medical students that I worked with had never heard of occupational therapy before. Therefore, it was pivotal that I shared my knowledge about the profession and what we do with them.

Most of the students were super intrigued about my profession since they had never heard about it before. They asked great questions and really seemed to appreciate what I did.  

Many have even messaged me since mentioning their appreciation for me sharing about my profession.

One of the girls who’s mother worked at the hospital.
She hung out with me everyday as soon as she was done with school.

One of the Highlights of the Mission

On one of the last days, I received a referral for a 10 day old little boy with a club foot. The med student who was with me that day was in awe when this little guy came in, having never worked with a child that young. At the beginning he seemed a little hesitant and unsure of what to do.

I walked through some basic developmental exercises and did some parent education, before sending the referral over to surgery.

It turns out that the student’s professor would be the one taking over this child’s needs, but he was not at the hospital yet and was not expected to arrive for a few hours.

The family patiently waited for the surgeon’s arrival and the med student graciously checked on the family many times as they waited.

The student and I discussed the case and then I requested that the student be the one who presented the case when his professor arrived. He again seemed a little hesitant and unsure, but accepted the request and followed through once the professor arrived at the hospital.

I patiently waited outside the room, just in case there were any questions, but allowed the student to present this case on his own. I couldn’t tell exactly what was said since they spoke Khmer, but the smile on the student’s face when he exited the room was enough to clue me in on the details.

The student was absolutely beaming as we walked away from the surgical wing of the hospital. I was super proud of him for taking authority over this case and being able to present it to one of his professors. He was also extremely proud for handling this case, especially since he had never worked with a child this young and had never seen a case of club foot before.

This one experience for sure left its mark on my memory and I’m sure will be one that the student remembers for a long time. It just goes to show the importance of not just putting on a bandaid when volunteering abroad and that it is imperative to educate and leave a lasting impression for the local health care providers.

View from inside the hospital grounds

Final Thoughts

I definitely learned a lot on this medical mission, including cultural and historical informational about Cambodia (which I’ll be writing another post about to cover this), the importance of skill set utilization when assisting on medical missions, and how imperative it is to leave a lasting impression and not just come, work, and leave.

The mission in Cambodia was extremely challenging in many ways, but I can honestly say that I learned so much from this trip and am glad that I was apart of it. I met so many amazing people who volunteered their time to help this mission, many of who I have kept in contact with since we returned to the states. I am even chatting with one of the doctors to attempt to plan another medical mission together in the near future.

My purpose in writing this post was to not only share my experiences volunteering abroad, but also to highlight that sometimes volunteer work doesn’t go exactly as you would have planned. While as a whole the Cambodian mission was a great experience, there were plenty of frustrating moments while there too.

One of the hardest parts of this mission was learning about the history of Cambodia, specifically the time period between the 1970s-1980s. I saved this part for a separate post, which will be posted in a few weeks, but I will warn you now that that post will be a tough read. 

Please let me know if you have any questions for me about my volunteer work or if you have any stories from one of your trips that you would like to share.

Anyone else been to Cambodia before? Done volunteer work there?

Guess what she is making?
WAFFLES!

14 Comments

  • Physician on FIRE January 9, 2019 at 2:14 pm

    It’s wonderful to see you and Mr. WoW out in the world changing lives. I’m looking forward to the followup post. It’s frightful what the Cambodians have been through.

    Best,
    -PoF

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 13, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      Thanks for stopping by POF! The next post will definitely be a little more rough for the readers, as it was for me to learn about while we were there.

      Reply
  • Fritz @ TheRetirementManifesto January 11, 2019 at 9:35 am

    WoW, you’re amazing. ‘Nuf said.

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 13, 2019 at 2:20 pm

      Thanks Fritz! I’ll be like Mr. Groovy and say “me like” ;o)

      Reply
  • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life January 11, 2019 at 10:57 am

    I’m so glad that the aim of your volunteer work isn’t the band-aid (or “savior”) mission that some people practice in just swooping in, doing something for a photo shoot, and leaving the people no better off than they were before (and in some cases worse off). This is the real heart of doing this kind of work – making sure that you’re giving the locals the tools to learn and teach the necessary skills for future generations.

    We aren’t medically trained ourselves so we support the people who know who go on these missions to perform the surgeries that the locals can’t do right now and teach them how. It’s very important work, thanks for stepping up and sharing.

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 13, 2019 at 2:22 pm

      These missions need plenty of volunteers who help with the logistics and are not medical so if you are interested in something like this you can still go. The medical personnel can not operate without non-medical people there to support their work. Mr.Wow is not in the medical field and he helped out immensely.

      Reply
      • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life January 15, 2019 at 11:55 am

        I don’t know why I didn’t even think of that aspect! Thanks for stating what should have been obvious to me 😀 When the kiddo gets old enough to help more, this might be something we try to do together.

        Reply
  • wendy January 11, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Great post – education and skill sharing will definitely provide ongoing benefits vs the photo shot & swoop version!

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 13, 2019 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks Wendy! Shoot and swoop, haven’t heard it put that way before, but that’s probably a good thing.

      Reply
  • Julia January 12, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    My sister lives in Phnom Penh, working to train local teachers. I visited about six years ago. It is certainly an interesting place! There are so many cultural differences which definitely make trips like yours challenging. I’m glad you had a good experience!

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 13, 2019 at 2:27 pm

      That’s awesome that your sister is living there. We definitely enjoyed our trip, but it was eye opening to say the least learning about the history, seeing the remnants of the regime, and talking to locals who lived through it.

      Reply
  • 5am Joel January 16, 2019 at 9:55 am

    You guys are simply amazing. Love all your travelling stories. Thanks for sharing – and thanks for volunteering your time to help others.

    Reply
  • FIRECracker January 29, 2019 at 3:30 am

    Yeah, I completely feel you on the whole “why is there no magic pill” misconception. This is what I used to be believe that, growing up in China. That somehow western medicine can cure all diseases. I guess it’s hard for the locals to not to have that kind of misplaced hope when things are so dire.

    Thank you for volunteering your time and helping others–especially in Cambodia, where they’ve lived through unimaginable tragedy.

    Reply
    • Mrs WoW January 29, 2019 at 6:34 pm

      I wonder too if because of movies and tv shows, i.e. basically the whole “Hollywood” culture, people believe that all Americans are skinny, beautiful, healthy, and never age, just simply because that’s what they see. And since that’s what they see then it must be due to some magic medicine.

      BTW, I enjoyed our chat the other day, think it will be an amazing episode. Oh and I should mention that I definitely re-read your Cambodia posts before we went so thank you for helping us prepare for our trip. I vividly remember seeing some of the things that you had talked about and reflecting on your words as I was there experiencing for myself.

      Reply

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