Angels of Battambang

I know I was lucky, but there was more to it than that. There must have been angels hovering around me the day I fell through that bridge. They were by my side during my hospitalization in Battambang – and beyond.

If not for angels, how else to explain the miracle that happened when I fell from such a height – without a bicycle helmet – and the worst of the brain-related injuries I sustained from the impact were: a thin layer of subdural hygroma in both frontal regions (prognostically insignificant) and mild ecchymosis periorbitally which translates into a bad bruise around my left eye.

There was the ‘angel’ who saw to it that I was delivered to the best hospital around. I initially heard about Keo Vich from hospital staff, and how, thanks to her, I was brought in to the Emergency Surgical Center. Someone who saw me take a dive must have known that she lived nearby, sent for her and made it possible for me to be transported to arguably the best equipped and only foreign-staffed hospital in the country – at least in terms of surgical and trauma care. I can still see Mrs. Vich’s warm smile as she visited me daily on the ward, comforting me by clasping my hand tightly.

Some kind of unearthly spirit must have delivered me into the hands of Dr. Benjamin Miller, a young American orthopaedic surgeon. Only three weeks into his stint in Battambang – and the last of his overseas assignments, which included Malawi and Bhutan – Dr. Miller’s stamina must have been put to the test that day before Chinese New Year, with throngs of casualties pouring in, I among them. I will always be grateful that, in a country starved for native-bred physicians, I was put into the able hands of “Dr. Ben” who saw fit NOT to operate on me. In this instance, surely I was in the right place at the right time. (The photo below is from Dr. Miller’s travel blog, which is right here.)

And then there was Sabrina, the Italian medical coordinator who, despite a somewhat icy exterior, could reassure me like nobody else that I would be well taken care of. Hers was the first English-speaking voice I heard when I awoke in the ER – and the last, before someone yelled “mass casualties coming in,”  whereupon I noticed a deep gash in my left hand and promptly conked out.

Mauro was the steady and reliable logistician, magically able to coordinate phone calls and ambulance transfers that seemed all but impossible. He somehow managed to be level-headed, professional and yet expressively concerned about my mental state and physical comfort. He would suddenly appear on the ward during some of my more desperate moments, smilingly handing me his phone so I could talk with a relative or consular official on the other end. Mauro was my no-nonsense one-man mobile band.

Debbie had an angelic quality of a different kind. Of Northern Irish origin (oops, sorry D!), she had a calm demeanor, nearly always bending down next to my bed so that our heads were at the same height. I was touched when she offered a book, even though I was in no place to read; it was The Book Thief, and I have it still.

Lara, the physiotherapist, tried hard (but unsuccessfully) to coerce me to sit on a chair or at least to stand up. She even brought along Sabrina for backup. No chance. Although I’m not convinced about the merits of her attempts to get me to move so soon after sustaining such major fractures, I certainly give her credit for having put up with my stubbornness and resistance.

And lastly, Mirko. I believe he was a nurse. With his nearly-bald (or was it shaven?) pate of gingi (orange) hair, freckles and a depth of warmth I wish I’d bottled up for home, Mirko truly saved me from myself. He did what none of the others had time or inclination to do: he washed my body from top to bottom (after asking me permission). Once, he set up a makeshift divider right on the ward, only partly obscuring me from view, then helped me undress while still lying down, soaped me up and watered me clean. Another time, he wheeled me to the shower-room on a gurney and hosed me down, scrubbing me with slow and deliberately careful strokes. There are not many like him; I am deeply grateful for the comfort and kindness that Mirko showered on me and the gift of water that cleansed me, inside and out.

Forget L.A., Battambang is my City of Angels.

Battambang Emergency Staff - angels among them...
Battambang Emergency Staff - angels among them...

Read more about the Ilaria Alpi Surgical Center on the Emergency websites here and here

You can see photos of the hospital and its lush tropical gardens here. Of course, the only peek and sniff I managed to get of this oasis of calm was as I was being ferried out to an ambulance on my way to Bangkok…

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