Reaching out to Cambodia
Recent power outages across the University, coupled with the warm temperatures of our buildings, reminded me of my recent summer excursion to Cambodia, which is bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. The people are beautiful and are working tirelessly to rebuild their country, which is also home to Angkor Wat, an ancient world wonder. Wonderful ancient accomplishments such as Angkor Wat exist there alongside the recent grim reminders of genocide in the late 70s and early 80s.
Most stunning for this UH research professor are the Khmer’s valiant efforts to rebuild the country. UH has been taking steps to support their efforts, particularly in the areas of health.
We roamed freely between the bustling capital of Phnom Phen, Khmer rural towns, coastal cities and every town in between. We were there with a purpose of exploring and building partnerships with the Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE — HOPE’s worldwide, nationally recognized training hospital — their local charter school and public health institutions.
Rebuilding a quality health care system is imperative. In 1979, after a genocide that took the lives of an estimated two million people, there were reportedly 45 medical doctors who survived. Some stayed in Cambodia, while others escaped to other countries. In 1996, this medical training hospital joined other groups in an effort to re-establish the health care system.
While there, I discovered a fellow UH alumnus, Brad Akins. He found an exciting way to confidently answer the question, “So, what can you do with a history degree?” In fact, he is a director of administration for the brand new HOPE worldwide-operated Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital that serves southern Cambodia in a medically under-served area. Every day, hundreds of patients receive quality health care with just a handful of medical staff. My trip was to consider ways to help support the country and the organization as they rebuild. Working with good people is a blessing. It’s even sweeter when they are alumni.
Yesterday, some of the UH family worked in less than comfortable conditions on campus. Some classes were held outside on the grass. A vast majority of health care facilities in developing countries like Cambodia do not have air conditioning because it is more of a luxury than a necessity. Their buildings are built to utilize nature rather than escape it. Windows are kept open for the natural breeze to flow through the hospitals. At the Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital and Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE patient waiting areas are outside—a concept that is almost unthinkable in the U.S. It works well, and the Cambodian people wait without complaining for their quality care.
Michael Sivak reported in The American Scientist that 87% of Americans use air conditioning in their home. Americans demand more energy for air conditioning than the world combined. He proposed that if the whole population of China and India had air conditioning like the U.S., there would not be enough energy in the world to make this happen. After my experience this summer in Cambodia, where temperatures and humidity climbed above 90 degrees and 90 percent, respectively, I can’t help but get a sinking feeling when I think about how the rest of the world would react to our circumstances.
An estimated five to 10 children died due to poor sanitation across the globe in the time it took you to read this article. That is, 1 child dies an average of every 20 seconds from this preventable health-related issue. Which group — not who — will solve and quickly roll out the solution to save lives? Another 783 million people do not have access to clean water and approximately 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. Which community engagement or class assignment will have enough gumption to not just theorize, but solve these health issues?
A synergy directed into countries like Cambodia must be created among our fragmented university projects. UH faculty, students and staff have great projects in Cambodia, yet like most university community engagement projects, they are born and operated in a vacuum. Cambodia focused efforts with tangible outcomes and research for expanding our knowledge base are emerging from architecture, social work, health and human performance, pharmacy, business and other areas across campus. Now is a great time to coordinate these efforts, not only for Cambodia, but also for each country and neighborhood that is represented on our campus. This is possible because many students, staff and faculty carry within them a deep desire to “give back” to their country and neighborhoods.
Larry Hill is a research professor for the Graduate College of Social Work and may be reached at lehill