Surgery on Disabled Girl Highlights Rural Medical Needs

A nasty accident when she was just five months old could have been a life sentence for Leam Sithan.

When an oil lamp tipped onto her blanket causing a fire, a lack of even the most basic medical care in her Kompong Thom pro­vince village meant a relatively rou­tine injury ended up crippling her.

The calf and foot of her damaged leg fused with her thigh over time, and her destiny seemed decided.

But the children from her village who used to call her “A Khvin,” or cripple, will have to come up with a new nickname: the 15-year-old from Koki Thom commune’s Anlong Thmei village in Baray district can now stand on her own, her damaged leg rebuilt.

Doctors at the Shriner’s Hospi­tal for Children in Hono­lulu, in the US state of Hawaii, performed a series of operations to separate the scar tissue that rendered her left leg useless, performed skin grafts to cover the separated area, and inserted metals pins and rods through the bone to straighten and lengthen the limb.

Nearly 12 months after leaving for Honolulu, Leam Sithan landed in Phnom Penh last week, able to walk without a crutch or a cane for the first time wearing a brace and a small prosthesis to lengthen her leg.

“I am feeling ok,” she said Fri­day. “I am so happy that I can walk without using a stick like I had to in the past.”

“Medically, this is as close to miracle as you can get,” said Dr Gunther Hintz, who oversaw the operations that gave Leam Sithan her leg back.

Hintz, who is based in Thai­land, is director of Medicorps, an international volunteer organization aiming to improve healthcare in developing countries.

Medicorps took on Leam Si­than’s case and, even though the operations cost a lot of effort and money, saving her leg sends out a message to far-flung villages in Cambodia that anything is possible, Hintz said. “She was a girl who everyone had given up on.”

Leam Sithan’s case also draws attention, Hintz added, to the fact that many parts of Cambodia lack even the most basic of medical care. “This would have been a very simple procedure if there had been any kind of an intervention immediately after she got burnt,” he said.

Aside from the operations, Hintz said the follow-up care will be crucial for Leam Sithan: an extensive rehabilitation program has been set up for her with the or­­­ganization Handicap Interna­tion­al in Siem Reap town, where she will also continue her education.

Sustainability is a key aspect to what Medicorps is trying to achieve, and the medical care will not end until Leam Sithan be­comes a productive and self-sufficient member of society, Hintz said.

Tim Thea, her mother, said she used to pity her daughter.

“She never went to school, there was not much we could do for her,” she explained. “We are too poor to arrange the education and healthcare that she needed.”

Now Tim Thea is thrilled with the transformation. Leam Sithan, who her mother said used to be shy and withdrawn, now wants to become a teacher.

“I am so impressed with this,” Tim Thea said. “I thank the doctor and all the people who made this possible.”

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