PEA REANG, Cambodia — Far outside the increasingly modern capital of Phnom Penh, out amid countless waterlogged rice paddies and farms of pink lotus blossoms where villagers eat deep-fried tarantulas as a treat, a survivor lies in a hospital bed tethered to brand new medical equipment.
The genocide she lived through as a teenage girl wiped out a third of Cambodia’s population. The murderous Khmer Rouge executed most of the people with formal education, especially doctors and nurses: 95% of them died or fled the country in the late 1970s.
Now 56, Chun Phaly faces a new threat that challenges the capacity of her province’s health care system. In fact, her sister brought her to the hospital in Pea Reang (pia re-ANG) from a neighboring province, drawn by reports of the new capabilities at this rural hospital, with its eight small, single-story, white stone buildings. One building houses a tuberculosis ward, and it is full.
“I heard Pea Reang had the best hospital,” Phaly says.
The tools her caregivers are using to save her life were unavailable here three months ago.
Phaly recently has grown weaker and weaker. Daily tasks began to leave her short of breath. Then she no longer could walk across a room without feeling dizzy and lightheaded. So her sister packed her up three days ago and brought her to this hospital with a growing reputation as shiny as its new equipment. A new report recently ranked Pea Reang Referral Hospital the nation’s third best.
Here, a medical assistant inserted an IV line in the back of her right hand, placed a white oximeter clip on her right forefinger to measure her oxygen level in her blood. Around her left bicep, a nurse placed a gray cuff attached by a gray cord to a sparkling white electrocardiogram machine that measures her heart’s electrical activity. The monitor revealed her problem. She has Brady cardia, an arrhythmia with a dangerously low heart rate, well below the normal range of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Such a low heart rate is typically a sign of heart damage or disease.
The medical team prescribed a five-day course of medicine. Three days later, as a reporter visited the hospital, the staff puts the oximeter back on her forefinger and returns the cuff to her bicep.
The gold number on the monitor — 64 — shows the medicine is working. She feels better.
Phaly is fortunate. Cambodia doesn’t have paramedics. Emergency rooms and emergency care are rare. So is basic cardiac care and equipment.
She is the beneficiary of a unique new partnership with Latter-day Saint Charities that is rapidly improving basic emergency care and other conditions at this hospital and its satellite health centers in surrounding villages. A surprisingly strong relationship has emerged between the government of a country whose 16.5 million citizens are 98% Buddhist and the Christian charity sponsored by a church with fewer than 15,000 members in all of Cambodia.