St. Francis Doctors Give Care Beyond Our Borders
Mar 1, 2018 | St. Francis News
On January 17, 2018, three members of St. Francis Medical Center’s medical staff boarded a flight from Los Angeles and headed west. More than 14 hours later, they landed in the Far East. Dr. Maxine Anderson and Dr. Gracie-Ann Dinkins, surgeons, and Dr. Hahn Nguyen-Clark, anesthesiologist, disembarked in Phnom Penh. They were among the 110 health care professionals from the US who volunteered for this year’s 10-day medical mission to Cambodia through the Cambodian Health Professionals Association of America (CHPAA).
CHPAA provides free medical, dental, and surgical services, as well as much needed health education to underserved people in Cambodia. This year’s mission took the volunteers to the Prey Veng province, a densely populated agricultural region on the east bank of the Mekong River, 70 km southeast of Phnom Penh. The people are primarily farmers, fishermen, and traders. About 53 percent live below the poverty line, and most have no access to health care.
Upon arriving to Prey Veng, the volunteers set up the site. Within a few days, they were ready to see patients. On the first day, approximately 650 people came for treatment. On the four days following, as word-of-mouth spread, a queue of more than 1,100 patients lined up for care each day.
“The people of Cambodia were so patient, respectful and appreciative of the care they received,” said Dr. Nguyen-Clark. “I was absolutely humbled by them.”
Drs. Anderson, Dinkins, and Nguyen-Clark were part of the surgical services team. They were joined by physicians, nurses, and techs from Southern California and other parts of the country. In addition to providing surgical care, the team also offered dental services, prosthesis fittings, and health check-ups. They were backed by 82 volunteer medical, dental, and pharmacy students from Cambodia who provided indispensable health care support and translation assistance.
The local hospital allowed the surgical team to use two surgical suites to set up three operating room (OR) beds. The team went to work and treated as many patients as they could. As the mission progressed and more patients needed surgeries, the team had to use the sterilization room to set up one more OR bed.
Due to the lack of ICU beds and ventilators (there was only one ventilator at the local hospital), all surgical patients had to be able to be discharged on the same day. Thus, the types of procedures that the team could perform were limited to outpatient surgeries, such as hernia repairs, lumpectomies, removal of masses and cysts, cataract surgeries, among others. There were times when they had to perform total mastectomies on patients with advanced stage breast cancer. There were also critical cases including an emergency appendectomy on a patient who was 24 weeks pregnant. For patients that needed more extensive surgeries, the group coordinator contacted the International Rotary Club in the capital to arrange for donations and the additional treatment that was required.
Dr. Anderson and Dr. Dinkins have served on many previous medical missions, both in Cambodia and other countries. They are dedicated to donating their time and talent to help people in need around the world. For Dr. Nguyen-Clark, this was her first extended overseas mission since her pre-med years. She said the trip was extremely well organized and brought crucial care to thousands of people. She credits the trip’s success to the advance preparations completed by CHPAA and by volunteers such as Dr. Dinkins, who helped to scout out the location and coordinate logistics through the excellent relationship they established with Cambodia’s Ministry of Health.
“Behind any successful project, there are many dedicated individuals who plan, raise money, and prepare the logistics in order for all things to go smoothly.” said Dr. Nguyen-Clark, who acknowledged that the groundwork for this trip was invaluable.
“Learning that there was a lack of supplies and effective medication in these rural areas from earlier trips, the organizers raised funds to purchase and bring all medications, equipment, and instruments over from the States,” explained Dr. Nguyen-Clark. “Although we did not have all drugs available like at home, we brought enough to help us safely take care of all surgical patients, including antibiotics, pain control and anti-nausea medications.” She continued, “This is also the first year we brought with us portable machines that can deliver anesthetic gas to keep patients asleep during the procedure. I am lucky to benefit from all the hard work others had put in after previous experiences.”
Even with pre-planning, it was not possible to have every supply readily at hand. “If there was something we didn’t have, we put our heads together and improvised,” said Dr. Nguyen-Clark. There was no ventilator, so we hand-bagged those who needed to be ventilated. When the light went out, we used our portable head lights to shine onto the surgical field for the surgeons to continue operating. We used large water bottles as our disposals for sharps and used needles. We had to be creative and resourceful.”
The volunteers had to contend with a few ailments of their own, including mosquito bites and severe cases of stomach upset due to the poor sanitation and sewage system, not to mention bugs landing in their supper. However, these were minor discomforts compared to all that they gained from this experience.
Inspired by her peers who worked side-by-side with her not only rendering care but also cleaning, sweeping, and doing whatever was necessary on behalf of the patients, Dr. Nguyen-Clark said, “I am grateful for having a chance to go to Cambodia to serve the people there. I am glad I worked alongside a group of wonderful volunteers who are so committed to serve the patients selflessly. No matter how hot and humid it was, no matter how busy it was, everyone worked with a smile. The camaraderie there was wonderful and real. It was teamwork at its best. And I am glad to have shared this experience with two of my colleagues and friends from St. Francis Medical Center.”
CHPAA is a non-profit organization that provides free medical, dental, and surgical services to underserved people of Cambodia, and gives them much needed health education. Here in the US, CHPAA participates in local health events, and awards generous scholarships to students who aspire to pursue a career in health field. The organization was founded in 2001 by a core of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, and allied health professionals. By 2010, the organization had increased in size manifold, and was able to launch its first mission to Cambodia. The success of this mission drew strong interest from more health professionals in many specialties from across America, year after year. CHPAA has now completed 7 overseas MISSION, having treated over 30,000 patients free of charge, and given out toothbrushes, reading glasses, prosthetic hands, medications. Funding comes from generous donors in America and Cambodia, and from mission volunteers who pay their own travel expenses. CHPAA owes its success to all the hard-working volunteers and generous supporters. Everyone who is involved in any capacity plays an important part in CHPAA’s core vision of “Promoting health through service and education.”