The new generation of eye surgeons in Cambodia

A new generation of eye doctors is slowly helping more and more blind people see in Cambodia, a country that remains one of the poorest in the world.

Last year, thanks to your support, we were able to train more than 56,000 eye care workers around the world, from community nurses, to ophthalmologists such as Dr Ouk Soleaphy, one of the first female eye doctors in Cambodia. Dr Soleaphy is part of a new generation of eye doctors putting the country’s health system back on track, after the horrors of The Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979.

At 31, this dedicated young woman, supported by The Foundation, is excelling in difficult conditions. She works long hours at the Kampong Chhnang district hospital, about three hours from the capital of Phnom Penh, seeing up to 40 patients a day. She has to wait until the weekends to see her three year old son Edwin and her five-month old girl, Dalis who lived with her parents in the capital.

“I earn a fairly small salary, but I’m very happy,” Dr Soleaphy says. She sees her profession as a way to help her family progress, and a chance to build up an army of home-grown eye doctors.

After the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, only 50 doctors remained, none of whom were eye doctors. It remains one of the world’s poorest nations, where about 18 per cent of the country’s 15 million people survive on less than $1.22 a day.

Today, there are still only 39 ophthalmologists in the country, 16 of whom were trained by The Foundation.

Like most Cambodians, Dr Soleaphy’s family was traumatised by the Khmer Rouge regime, under which more than three million Cambodians were executed, starved to death or died of disease. Her grandparents were sent to a work camp to dig trenches and almost died of sickness and starvation.

“They had to go out at night and steal potatoes at night to feed my parents,” she said quietly. “I’m sure they died a lot younger than they should have because of the terrible malnutrition they suffered.

“But this is the story of most Cambodians. So many have a story like this.”

Rather than dwelling on the past, Dr Soleaphy is looking to the future. The best way to tackle the backlog of more than 100,000 needing cataract surgery is for more women like her to be trained.

“Being blind is really quite degrading. It’s suffering. Being able to see is the ultimate in quality of life,” she says. “It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to give people that.”
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