Cambodian Eye Mission – December 2017
By Tina Parmar
Dawn broke over the shattered soviet-style glumness that was downtown Phnom Penh and with some trepidation I made my way down for breakfast. This was at 7:30am, which as all who know me would attest to was the middle of the night on the Tina sleep cycle. On top of this breakfast was chicken fried rice. Fried rice! Only in Asia would rice be eaten for breakfast I mused, as I looked down on the sticky mess in front of me (was actually delicious). Would I succumb to the Cambodian version of Delhi belly? Would I spend my time getting to grips with Phnom Penh plumbing?
My thoughts were interrupted as a man sat down on the table next to us. I whispered to the others that his bearing and demeanour meant that he was likely to be a vitreoretinal surgeon and as I already knew we were to be led by a VR man I suspected that he must be our boss-to-be. I shyly looked at him as an overwhelming vitreal presence radiated from him. The others told me off for being presumptuous at immediately assuming that this was our lead but I know a VR surgeon when I see one. A chatty American lady (is there any other type?) and three ophthalmic looking faces joined her (a researcher from India and two european ophthalmologists it turns out). But as is usual my VR-dar was spot on as this was the ‘research group’ – there to research a new machine at the same clinic– and the man with the flashinglightsandfloaters aura was indeed our VR leader.
The local team leader himself was a medical student volunteer and an aspiring ophthalmologist, a man called Hout, who arrived fashionably late as we were wondering whether we had been stood up, a situation I myself have never experienced of course. Hout took us to the Metro Clinic, a shiny new building in the Cambodian Capital purpose built for cosmetic work but which had a collection of shiny new ophthalmic equipment, as they had ideas of doing some sort of eye work in future. The building was grand in the American style and made the NHS buildings I had been accustomed to look like, well, the rest of Phnom Penh. The patients themselves were very much NHS style however, as they queued around the block to come in and after the door was opened they began pouring in. Whether they were also discussing the weather I could not tell, as I do not speak Khmer. As this tide engulfed reception we were given a brief tour of the building and told to crack on.
Initially this work consisted of seeing walk-ins and post-ops from the previous missions but on the first day we were short of slit lamps! The five of us were sharing one slit lamp. It was like being a supernumary ST1 again but this time I was actually keen to do work and not just pretend. With this being said we were also slowed down as none of us spoke the local language, so we had to use medical students and pharmacy students as translators. It reminded me of my time in Carmarthen.
Theatres started late. This was more because of us than the scrub nurses and theatre assistants, who were local volunteers who had been intensively trained in less than three months and had immense knowledge and who made everything run smoothly. As we finished theatre at a reasonable time my thoughts drifted to how we should impress our VR leader with tales of the day’s derring-do. At 7pm we went to a local Vietnamese restaurant recommended by our local leader Hout. The four juniors present shared food and drank alcohol whilst it quickly became apparent that our VR colleague was both a devout vegan and teetotaler. Thoughts of impressing him soon flew out the window as he witnessed what must have been to him the bloody carnage of the Savannah as my fellow juniors tore into meat and quaffed down beer whilst he looked on aghast with his little unshared vegan meal in front of him, and glass of fruit juice. Is this what a clash of cultures looks like in real life? Is this what a Saudi man feels like when he wanders into a drunken stag party, or any reasonable person feels when they read the Daily Mail? What an Israeli feels like at a PLO convention or what Safa feels like at Tory HQ? Was he a pilgrim in an unholy land? I considered it for a second more then realised it had been a long day, I was both tired and hungry, so with no more consideration of the matter tucked into a well deserved meal that a vegan would thoroughly disapprove of. I was a happy Tina going to bed that night.