The Israeli Embassy in Bangkok brought reconstructive surgeon Yithak Ramon to Phnom Penh so he could help Cambodia’s burn victims. But in a sense, he says, he’s here for everyone else.
“These operations are for you,” 48-year-old Ramon said in an interview last week. “So when you look at [these burn victims], you will think they look alright and treat them accordingly. They will be able to lead a more normal life. This is the achievement.”
Sok Channoeurn, 28, would agree. Though she says she trembles at the thought of another surgery—on top of the seven she has already undergone since strangers squeezed acid from a bottle onto her and her fiance one year ago—if it will “keep people from looking at me in that strange way when I go out, I think I will do it,” she says.
Ramon arrived from Israel on Nov 27 to work for 10 days performing surgery on several burn victims with the staff at the American Medical Center, which comprises founder and US national Reid Sheftall, three Cambodians and one Iraqi. He is due to leave Wednesday.
Since October 1999, when local rights group Licadho began monitoring acid attacks, there have been 111 attacks with a total of 181 victims. But treatment for victims is extremely limited.
As Ramon and Sheftall swapped before-and-after pictures of burns patients they had operated on in the past and drew diagrams of possible operations for the patients beforethem today, Chour Sreya sat nearby, chatting with her husband of just three weeks—who, like her, is blind. The couple met through their work at Seeing Hands Massage.
Chour Sreya’s face and neck are badly scarred. She is missing a patch of hair above her forehead and her eyes are sealed shut so that she cannot see beyond detecting light.
But Ramon had a few ideas that might improve her condition. He wanted to insert a piece of bone below the skin to create an appearance more like the nose she lost.
“I am scared [to get the operation],” Chour Sreya said, “but mainly just happy to be here.”
On a regular day, Ramon would likely be in the public hospital where he works in Haifa in northern Israel.
The bulk of the burn victims Ramon treats have had accidents in the home—but there are also the war-wounded. One patient was badly burned when a missile hit his home during Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon.
Sheftall and the doctors at the American Medical Center have performed over 60 operations on burn victims in the last five years. Most of the victims Sheftall sees have suffered acid attacks, though there are also many that are burned in electrical accidents.
Yael Rubinstein, Israel’s ambassador to Cambodia and Thailand, came up with the idea to fly in an Israeli doctor.
“Health is one of the main sectors I am interested in working on the relationship we have with Cambodia,” Rubinstein said, adding that she has plans to fly in an Israeli expert on prenatal care in the future.
Kek Galabru, president of Licadho and also a medical doctor, said she welcomes working relationships with doctors from abroad but added that temporary stays are not long-term solutions. She says Ramon’s stay will be particularly useful if he can train doctors that are going to stay in Cambodia. “Ten days is not very long,” she said. “Maybe this doctor can come back.”