Chem Sophy suffered burns to his right hand and left foot when he was a year old. Doctors at one hospital tried to graft new skin over the 7-year-old’s wounds earlier this year, but his burns remained raw, wrinkled and unsightly.
On Wednesday, surgeons at Preat Bat Norodom Sihanouk Hospital completed the same procedures. His mother sat quietly by Chem Sophy, worried but hopeful. A few cots over, Kim Seng, 40, was happy. His son Kim Sok Yem, also 7, had his cleft lip fixed Wednesday morning. The lip was still stitched together, but already it looked better.
Operation Smile, a US nonprofit organization with missions in 20 countries, made these reconstructive surgeries possible. By the end of Thursday the group expected to have performed 168 surgeries, all for free.
“I am very happy with the free operation, because I am very poor,” said Kim Seng, who is a market vendor. He said it would have cost $200 to $300 to have his son’s lip fixed in a private hospital.
When Operation Smile commits to work in a country, teams visit once a year for a week, helping all the patients they can, for at least five years. Each year, they try to expand the program. The teams also assist in the training of local physicians. When the team leaves today, three volunteers will stay behind until the patients’ recovery period is over.
Chris Anderson, Operation Smile mission coordinator, said most of the services the doctors provide are cleft palate and cleft lip repairs. Although those deformities are mainly cosmetic, Anderson said, the stigma attached to them often keeps those afflicted from attending school or getting good jobs.
Minister of Health Hong Sun Hout stopped by Wednesday to inspect Operation Smile’s work. He talked to patients, mostly young children, and their parents. Afterward, at a news conference, the minister thanked Operation Smile for its efforts.
He did point out Cambodians can also go to public hospitals for free treatment.