On any given morning during the week, the grounds outside the Children’s Surgical Center in Phnom Penh are teeming with eager patients. Inside, doctors can barely move as they consult with patients old and young. In a few hours, there will be three simultaneous operations occurring behind a glass window just around the corner from the building’s entrance.
CSC, located several kilometers east over the Japanese-Friendship Bridge, offers free, rehabilitative operations to poor, disabled Cambodians who have conditions they can treat. Conducting roughly 6,500 consultations and performing an estimated 3,000 operations each year, surgeons at CSC operate on disabilities that range from cleft lips and palates to club feet, fractured bones that have healed poorly, facial tumors, cataracts and acid burns.
Jim Gollogly, the chief surgeon and only non-Cambodian doctor on staff, says, “We are limited by funding, so we can’t be big-scale. We do operations on arms, legs, faces and heads,” adding that he hopes they will be able to expand into spinal surgery soon.
Originally from Britain, Gollogly first came to Cambodia in 1992 with the International Red Cross and found there was virtually no one who could address the problems landmine victims faced. He opened the center in 1998 to provide for “people who had landmines in their hands when they went off,” harming their arms and faces.
“Of course, we knew once we started that people would start coming out of the woodwork,” Gollogly added. The biggest problem now, he says, is that the demand has increased, but the resources have not.
At present, all funding for CSC comes from government grants and private donors. For certain procedures, CSC collaborates with specific organizations—such as their partnership with Smile Train, a worldwide charity with its headquarters in New York, which focuses on cleft palate operations.
Muol Chhorn, director of the Ministry of Health’s National Rehabilitation Center, says CSC helps relieve pressure from state-run hospitals. “They help many people. Many poor people who have no money go to CSC instead of state hospitals,” he said.
The CSC attempts to fill a deficit of health care in a country where, according to the Asian Development Bank, government expenditure on health is a mere $2 per person each year. While the cost of health care in Cambodia varies, it is possible that the same operations CSC offers for free could cost as much as a couple of hundred dollars or more elsewhere.
Some disabilities, like club feet for example, often demand repeat operations. And while many NGOs import doctors from around the world for brief and specific periods of time to perform operations on those in need, few leave a sustainable structure in their wake that can continue to provide the same services.
In contrast, CSC prioritizes skills transference. Foreign doctors come to the center for a period of weeks or months, teaching the 50-person staff new practices.
Tea Sokleng, a surgeon at the CSC, said: “Previously, I and some other doctors here knew little about surgeries. Now we know better.” He added that learning to perform surgery on facial tumors was particularly helpful.
San Sim, 17, who lives in Pursat province’s Krakor district, was operated on by the surgeons at CSC in March 2006 for a facial tumor that had begun to develop four years earlier. “Before surgery,” San Sim said by telephone, “I was in extreme difficulty: [I] had a headache, whooping cough and could not breathe properly.” According to the hospital, he was also having trouble eating and swallowing.
Now, San Sim says, “I’m very happy…. I have gotten better and can breathe properly.” Unfortunately, San Sim’s tumor is growing back and he will need follow-up surgery in November. Thanks to the CSC, that option is available to him.