For over a decade, Than Chanrotha, 38, has carried scars from an acid attack that burned her face and arms and melted away most of an ear.
“I used to be beautiful and after that whenever I go anywhere I feel ashamed,” she said. When it first happened, she did not leave the house for two years and tried to commit suicide twice.
In 1998, Ms Than was working at a snooker club in Phnom Penh. Her vacation coincided with her boss’s, causing his wife to suspect incorrectly that they leaving together for an extramarital tryst.
“She threatened me saying, ‘Be careful, your face is very beautiful,'” Ms Than said.
A short time later while standing near a bridge in Stung Meanchey commune, two men on a motorbike drove by and threw acid at her. “It was very hot. I did not know what it was,” she said.
On Jan 25, Ms Than was among the 50 people–some with severe facial burns, others missing ears–waiting to be screened at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital by American doctors. The visiting surgical team work in association with Operation Smile and the Face to Face foundation, which is part of the American Academy of Facial Plastics and Reconstructive Surgery.
During the week, the plastic surgeons carried out 18 ear and facial operations including five on burns patients.
The overseas team of five, led by Dr Craig Murakami, flew in from Virginia Mason Medical Center in the state of Washington and form the University of Maryland in Baltimore. They operated alongside Dr Theavy Mok, program director of Operation Smile Cambodia, the local chapter of an NGO working in 46 countries.
“We organized this mission to help with ears. Normally we operate on cleft lips and palates,” Dr Theavy said.
This is the third surgical mission organized by Dr Murakami, who adopted a son from Cambodia nine years ago. This visit he was able to carry out second stage operations.
“I feel very scared,” said Sam Daneth, a 15-year-old girl with severe burns on her face and neck, dressed to go into the operating theater on Tuesday. She was one of five patients being sponsored by Operation Smile.
“When I was three years old I took a pancake from the stove and fell in burning oil,” she recounted. During her first operation in 2002, skin from her leg was grafted to her face. This time she was set to have a Z-plasty–a surgical technique that improves the functional and cosmetic appearance of scar tissue–to reshape her ear and improve her hearing. Srey Touch, 18, also had a surgical operation sponsored by Operation Smile on Thursday to allow her eyelids to close, thereby reducing the risk of blindness.
Dr Murakami said he had seen relatively more acid burns in Cambodia than in the US.
There were 12 acid attacks with 19 victims in 2009; five of these attacks, which injured nine people, occurred in December, according to Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity data.
The number is probably higher, however, given the number of cases that likely go unreported. On Dec 10, two sisters were injured when two men on a motorbike doused them in corrosive acid in the capital.
Dr Hernan Goldsztein, another plastic surgeon on the mission, said he was overwhelmed by the number of people needing plastic surgery.
“All the cases of domestic violence in particular are heartbreaking. They really strike me,” he said. “We want to help them but need to be realistic about how much we can do.”
For Ms Than, however, the mission has allowed her to have an ear operation that has given her new hope. “I feel I’m going to be cured; there are good doctors here and I feel pleased,” she said. “I have waited over 10 years. Now I am finally having surgery.”
Plans are also underway for the Operation Smile international mission to take place between 12th and 19th March at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital. About 30 overseas professionals are aiming to top the 127 operations, on cleft lips and palates as well as facial deformities, carried out during the international mission last March. There are an estimated 20,000 children and young adults with clefts in Cambodia, according to the Operation Smile website.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)