From the outside, Nam Sreynich looks like any healthy 6-year-old girl. But inside, her heart beats at an irregular and perhaps life-threatening rhythm.
Sitting in an observation room in the newly-constructed Phnom Penh Heart Center, Nam Sreynich waits patiently as Dr Alain Deloche listens with his stethoscope to her heartbeat.
“She has a little-size hole, so she can wait [a few months],” he said. “If it was big, she would die. But it is very small and the surgeon can close it.”
The small hole in Nam Sreynich’s heart has been there since birth. Congenital problems like hers are not uncommon. In the West, a girl like Nam Sreynich would have had surgery and treatment during infancy, according to Deloche. But until last week’s opening of the center, there was little hope that she could get the same level of treatment and care that is available in Thailand, Singapore and the West.
Those with enough money have traveled abroad for expensive surgeries—National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh is one recent example—while the rest have suffered without treatment.
The center is Cambodia’s first modern cardiology facility, with two operating rooms, an intensive care unit, 28 beds, two outpatient clinics and high-tech diagnostic equipment. Corporate and private donations from France, the US, Switzerland and the United Kingdom funded the more than $5 million construction cost.
Deloche, a professor and heart surgeon who founded Chaine de l’Espoir, an organization that brings cardiovascular treatment to children in underdeveloped countries, estimates that there are more than 20,000 people in Cambodia in need of treatment for various heart problems.
Located on 3,500 square meters of land next to Calmette Hospital, the center hopes to operate on 1,000 patients per year and to examine 10,000 outpatients per year. Most of the patients will be children. Medicine and consultations are free for poor Cambodians.
Nam Sreynich’s surgery will cost about $2,000, which is cheap compared to what it would cost in Paris or the US, Deloche said. But it is nonetheless a large expense for the center.
In order to meet costs, the center will also include large, separate inpatient rooms where rich patients can get “perfect” care as they recover from surgery. There is even an extra room where family members can stay. But the VIPs, of course, will have to pay a large fee for their luxury.
“For the cost of one day’s stay here, we can fund one child’s operation,” said Deloche.
The emphasis on treating children is so important because of the high rates of mortality for children with congenital heart defects. Fifty percent die during childhood if they aren’t treated before they are 2 years old, Deloche said.
The center will also serve as a training ground for Cambodians who want to learn cardiology. There are already plans to bring in teams of doctors and surgeons from the US, Canada and Belgium for short-term exchanges.
Doctors will teach cardiology at the Faculty of Medicine and students there will do a rotation at the center, said Deloche. Cambodians will also train at the Ho Chi Minh City Heart Institute, built by Chaine de l’Espoir 10 years ago.
Ten nurses, two anesthesiologists and one surgeon are now in training.
Seven expatriates, including two heart surgeons, are currently volunteering at the center.
Deloche described Dr Hak Sok Hay as the “best cardiologist in Cambodia.”
Hak Sok Hay went to Paris in 1994 for training and is now one of four or five cardiologists in Cambodia.
“Cambodia has every kind of heart disease that you could find in the US,” Hak Sok Hay said. “But before, we wouldn’t know what the problem was with a patient. We couldn’t know what was happening with their heart.”
An echograph machine, operated by French-Cambodian Dr Ou Phalla, enables doctors to see an ultrasound image of Nam Sreynich’s heart and the tiny hole that has caused her irregular heartbeat.
And because of that machine and other services offered at the center, Nam Sreynich will likely be able to live a full childhood in Phnom Penh, no different than had she been born in a more developed country.
“In France and the US, we have no more diseases like hers,” Deloche said. “It is like a chapter in a history book.”