It was 1996 and Cathy Pingoy, a 25-year-old nurse from Manila, had just arrived in Phnom Penh. Sent by international medical NGO Hope Worldwide, she was tasked with transferring her work of treating poor patients from slum areas in her home city to a newly built hospital in Cambodia.
But instead of finding new facilities upon her arrival, Ms. Pingoy was greeted by a ramshackled construction site, a small team of expatriates and a shopping list complete with beds and tables that she would find at Central Market.
“I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said on Monday, back in the same location in Prampi Makara district, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope, a not-for-profit facility that offers free medical care to the poor.
(Disclosure: The Cambodia Daily’s publisher, Bernard Krisher, is the founder of the hospital and chairman of its board of directors.)
Now a nursing teacher at the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital, Ms. Pingoy was initially among just four qualified nurses—all recruited from abroad—tasked with hiring Cambodian nurses in time for the hospital’s opening.
“It was hard at first. Actually, not hard—very hard,” she said, adding that because of a lack of options, they had to consider candidates with informal or limited experience. Some applicants had worked as medical volunteers at refugee camps after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, with only brief instructions from humanitarian workers as their training, she said.
“The curriculum for Cambodia was not as concrete as right now,” she said. “One of the difficulties at that time was that when we hired the nurses, they had been trained the wrong way, so we had to redo all that.”
At Monday’s anniversary ceremony, attended by about 200 staff members and guests, King Norodom Sihamoni praised the work of the institution named after his late father, King Norodom Sihanouk.
“This hospital has remained in the hearts of Cambodian people, including me,” King Sihamoni said, adding that since it opened, the hospital had treated 1.3 million poor people and provided training courses to about 5,000 health professionals.
The Cambodian people “have made this hospital grow…like a tree that provides shade to the poor,” he said.
After his speech, King Sihamoni—accompanied by the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and Health Minister Mam Bunheng—visited some of the hospital’s patients and presented them with gifts.
It was not the first act of generosity Ms. Pingoy had witnessed there.
“When cyclo drivers found out the hospital was free, if they saw someone on the street who looked very sick or injured they would bring them to the hospital for treatment,” she said.
According to Chhun Savoeun, 42, who has worked at the hospital since it opened, the altruistic model is also what keeps employees motivated.
“The staff that have worked here for 20 years still want to help the poor,” said Mr. Savoeun, who was a security guard for 16 years until he received an engineering degree and became a maintenance manager in 2013.
When people first started hearing about its free services, he said, the center quickly reached capacity, and a lottery process was introduced in which patients would take a ticket and then get chosen at random throughout the day.
“At first, there were too many patients coming. We had to come up with a solution, so we designed the lottery system,” he said.
Gary Jacques, vice president of health and social services at Hope Worldwide, who was the Sihanouk Hospital’s director from 2003 to 2007, said the establishment had come a long way since he came on board.
“In 2002, there were lots of expat staff in the key positions; now, they’re all Cambodian,” Mr. Jacques said, adding that there were now more women in senior positions, including directorial roles.
Although the hospital’s budget had more than doubled over 15 years—from $2 to $4.5 million—Mr. Jacques said funding continued to be a major challenge.
“I would like to see more funding come from inside Cambodia,” he said. “I’m thinking of banks, wealthy businesses, as well as individuals, who have been fortunate enough to get rich from this country.”