Dr Bernadette Gilmore
Optometrist, Cambodia Field Trip 2015
I first came across Vietnam Vision Projects (VVP) when ‘googling’ opportunities to volunteer in optometry. After a few years of watching the wonderful work that VVP does I finally decided to “put my money where my mouth is” so to speak and signed up as a volunteer with the eye team for 2015. This year was a little different for everyone as they ventured into Cambodia as part of Australian Health Humanitarian Aid (AHHA; this acronym is much fun to use instead of the word ‘cheese’ when taking photos). This meant that it was a much smaller group, with no surgical team; however we then had the time to be able to prescribe both reading and distance glasses to those who needed them.
"As a first time volunteer I was pleasantly surprised by how well we were looked after ..."
It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve made the children’s lives easier as they will no longer have to strain just to keep everything in focus. As part of the LKC program every graduating child receives a bike, helmet and backpack. We were lucky to be able to give out the bikes we had sponsored ourselves, it felt like being Santa and the amazing grin every child had as they pedalled off was worth every hot, sweaty minute of testing. I also have to say that most of the kids were already much better at riding a bike than I am, despite the fact that the bikes were brought big enough for them to grow in to.
It was pleasing to see that most of the LKC kids had relatively health eyes; fairly similar to what you would expect back in Australia. Just like home though, there are some undetected eye problems and we came across a family of high hyperopes it felt great to be able to help. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve made the children’s lives easier as they will no longer have to strain just to keep everything in focus. As part of the LKC program every graduating child receives a bike, helmet and backpack. We were lucky to be able to give out the bikes we had sponsored ourselves, it felt like being Santa and the amazing grin every child had as they pedalled off was worth every hot, sweaty minute of testing. I also have to say that most of the kids were already much better at riding a bike than I am, despite the fact that the bikes were brought big enough for them to grow in to.
This new move also started the 4am wake up call, which was one of my least favourite aspects of the trip. To offset the pain though there was delicious fried egg roll on the most amazing bread waiting for us on the bus that took us out to the lake. Thursday brought the most interesting building I’ve ever worked in- a floating church. After some minor sea sickness issues I really got into the swing of things as it was actually quite a good space to work in, with more of a sea breeze. Due to the exposure to the UV glare off the water and the older population.
we saw many more pterygia in this location and were luckily able to give out a lot of sunglasses over the last two days to help prevent worsening of this condition. It was good to know we were able to do something to help for the future as ptergium surgery is more complicated with poorer outcomes than cataract surgery and so in this case, prevention is much easier than cure. With such an early start we actually finished around 3pm- enough time to get back to the hotel with all our precious gear before the monsoon rains arrived (the scouting party the day before weren’t so lucky!).
Our last day of testing was in another floating village- albeit at the school on dry land at one side of it. We still got to arrive by boat and were cheered in to work by the local school kids- I could get used to someone clapping every time I turned up to do my job! We worked fast and furious on Friday as we knew we had to be get back to the capital that evening and anyone we couldn’t see in the allotted time would have to go without. All the volunteers really pulled together, and so we ended up seeing over 1000 people in our short week away. Looking back on the week, there were definitely challenges and times you wish you had more equipment available and were able to do more, but all the smiles I saw really reminded me that we had made a big difference. That is what all would be new recruits should remember I think, that it is the people that will really make your time. From the patients you will see and who will teach you the words for “thank you” (aw kohn- to English speakers this sounds a little like ‘all good’) before you learn anything else as you will hear it so much, to all the amazing other volunteers who freely give their time and have been there before, seeming like superheroes able to get so much done in such a short period of time. I would like to thank absolutely everyone involved who made my first volunteer experience something I am very keen to repeat.
I was eased into things with a four star hotel in Siem Reap and a trip around Angkor Wat on the first day. Then it was off to Lotus Kids Club (LKC) to set up ready for work the next day. Facilities on site are basic as expected but clean and pleasant. We all set up in the one small room with a doorway and fan for cooling. Luckily we had power outlets for recharging- you go through a lot of batteries for hand held equipment when seeing more than 200 patients a day! A suggestion to future volunteers- a power pack (especially with power adaptor and surge protector) is invaluable as everyone needs to charge their equipment but there aren’t always a lot of spare power points. You will also end up swapping with everyone so having all parts of your equipment clearly labelled helps. Pants (long enough to be modest) are much easier to work in than a skirt as there will be lots of moving about. Try and keep to cool materials- with so many people in one room you will be sweating buckets! Hydrolyte is also an essential part of any first aid kit.
"It's a great feeling to know that you've made the children's lives easier ..."
The next day saw us travelling out to the much more rural Kampong Chhnang and the conditions were more as I had expected. The hotel we stayed at proudly displayed a sign stating it had passed the requirement for a one star hotel. However; the linen was clean, the air conditioners worked and there was a bathroom with running water in every room (although I never did figure out if hot water was available, it was warm enough not to worry). I’m not sure what the building code is in Cambodia but the hotel did have some interesting architectural features including a bird living in my bathroom exhaust fan. At least the friendly gecko population helps keep the bugs down. All in all, not too bad really, although I was lucky enough to be on a floor away from the fire (a story someone else can tell better I’m sure).