Cambodia offered me few opportunities in 1983. I had no money for schooling and little food to eat. I lived with different family members until they ran out of rice, and then would move on to a new home and a new life.
When I was 14, I left my home in Battambang for Banteay Meanchey, where I lived in a refugee camp that offered me a new beginning—and some training in medicine.
The lessons I learned as a medical student at the American Refugee Center prepared me, years later, to fight the malaria I fell sick with two weeks ago.
When I was training to become a medical assistant, my group of students followed a US doctor as he treated pediatric ward patients.
I became very good at giving injections and soon was handed sick babies right after they were born. They weren’t even clean yet, but I was skilled with injections and shot them in the their arms and heads.
I learned the names of all the body parts and how they functioned. I learned the diseases and how to treat them.
When I left the camp in 1991, my career path deviated from medicine to journalism. But I still live by my early lessons, and when I returned from a trip to Pailin earlier this month, I knew the illness I contracted there had to be malaria.
My trips to Pailin are frequent, and I know the risks of mosquitoes in the jungle. I tried to protect myself from malaria, sleeping beneath a mosquito net and pulling my socks up high over my ankles. But there was no way to keep my arms from being bitten in the restaurants at night.
Upon my return to Phnom Penh, I grew weak and my head and eyes pulsed with pain. Ten days passed before I fell ill with a high fever. I’ve seen this disease before, and I knew I needed a doctor. Blood tests at a private clinic confirmed my suspicions, and I began receiving an intravenous treatment that day.
The medicine was worse than the malaria. The ringing in my ears was so loud I couldn’t hear my family’s voices. My vision changed, and the hard floor beneath me appeared soft. The treatment grew worse as I slept. My dreams carried me to a very dark, very bad place. And I felt like I was falling over a cliff.
For four days I had frightful dreams, and the ringing in my ears continued for a week. My family helped me through the pain, though, massaging my fingers and face.
The ringing is gone this week, and I’m back to work. The hardest task to accomplish now is convincing my family I still need massages.