Blindness in Cambodia is one step closer to being a problem of the past, with the opening of a new eye clinic in the capital. Miguel Jerónimo catches up with Khmer Sight Foundation’s latest progress. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.
Volunteers Victor Norris and Huot Cheng are wrapping-up from another mission that saw international doctors visit Phnom Penh to change dozens of lives in just a couple of days.
As previously reported in AsiaLIFE it is through these missions that Khmer Sight Foundation is helping to stamp out blindness in the Kingdom. And the opening of its new hospital – the largest eye care centre in Cambodia – is just another step in accomplishing its aim.
Sean Ngu, founder and project mentor, said in 2017, more than 10,000 free cataract surgeries were delivered to some of the country’s most vulnerable and impoverished people.
It all started in 2007, when Australian Dr Kim Frumar volunteered his time to come to Cambodia and operate on patients for free. Ngu brought him to a public hospital in Kampot as it was his grandfather’s hometown who, suffering from cataracts, endured life as a street food seller in order to feed his 14 children.
Ngu’s grandmother used to tell how he always had burns on his arms due to not seeing properly while cooking.
Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens, causes 75 percent of avoidable blindness in Cambodia.
Something as simple as a 20 minutes operation has the power to reverse this, and that was what triggered Ngu and Frumar to launch Khmer Sight.
“That day when we arrived at the hospital in Kampot, we had 2,000 people waiting,” says Ngu. “When we asked which ones were the eye patients the doctors said, “All these people are for you”.”
After performing 120 surgeries, they organised regular missions where international doctors from across the world came to Cambodia voluntarily to operate on those in need.
As well as cataracts, glaucoma, refractive issues, corneal disease and pterygium are also tackled. About 600 doctors are registered with the programme, which is expanding annually.
With a new hospital mooted to open in April, for now Metro Medical Center, on the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 240, is serving as a clinic.
Once open, the hospital will boost services, with 10 doctors able to operate simultaneously while teams of volunteers visit remote villages to carry out health checks at pagodas.
It will also serve as the first independent training center in the country, allowing post-graduate medical students to finish their specialisation on-site.
It will also be kitted out with a swathe of state-of-the-art equipment, including laser machines to treat glaucoma.
As well as changing the lives of those who cannot afford access to health, the foundation is building capacity for the next generation of doctors. And, hopefully, inspiring them to work for those in need.
Norris recruits volunteers via a Facebook group aimed at medical students, giving them the chance to work alongside world-class surgeons.
Ngu says, “We are not here forever, knowledge has to be passed on.”
And in a country which has one of the lowest rates of ophthalmologists per capita, passing the skills from international doctors to local students is the most sustainable approach possible.
The stories of gratitude are the main reward, says Norris a typical story of the impact of Khmer Sight Foundation.
He recalls an elderly man, who for many years could see less than one metre in front of him. After the surgery, he was able to see more than six metres and walk alone without help, stating he was felt like he was “born again”.
He adds, “We are giving a lifetime gift for them.”