A Tale of Two Hospitals

On a wide swath of land between Highway 5 and the main police office, the grass, trees and flowers bloom all year round in this verdant oasis: A Garden of Eden grows in Emergency.

Not only does it grow green and abundant, but it’s well-maintained, manicured, weeded and clipped. Buddha statues and the NGO’s signature red poles dot the landscape.

Buildings, with bilingual English and Khmer signs, are a combination of Khmer traditional architecture, two-storey wooden buildings, awnings for shade, built-in benches, white-tiled walkways and wards.

It’s easy to see why Emergency is a solitary slice of paradise in Cambodia’s second-largest city. By any standard, it’s the destination of choice for Khmer people in the know. It’s also the place you would choose to end up at if – as a foreigner – you absolutely had to.

Full disclosure: There’s still work to be done regarding hygiene and sterilization standards on the wards and in the ICU. The work ethic is, in some cases, glaringly absent. Certain items go missing. Patients (and their relatives) often act as they do at home, throwing trash on the floor even when a wastebasket is next to each bed. But the cleaning staff is ALWAYS at work: The floors, walls, lamps, doors, windows, cupboards and beds undergo a regular weekly scrubbing; nearly everything is wheeled out of the wards – including most patients.

The classroom is down the path towards the staff cafeteria. Another cafeteria gives patients on crutches or wheelchairs an opportunity to take a break from the wards.

Men often congregate under a well-shaded hut to talk, play a Khmer game or line up for Thursday haircuts. Behind the hut, a newly-painted playground brings a piece of normalcy into the drudgery of hospital life.

Earlier today, I reflected on the differences and disparities between Emergency and the Referral (i.e. Provincial) Hospital, less than 2 km away.

Eva Maria, a German nurse striving to upgrade services at the Referral Hospital, recently led Ombretta and I on a tour around the premises. Ombretta, the Italian nurse at Emergency, had last visited over a year ago; she was visibly impressed with the improvements: A new and more-technologically equipped ophthalmology unit, a maternity unit (and others) under construction, newly-tiled and brightly-painted wards in some sections. 

And yet, with a dearth of resources, patients are often crowded together in common areas, breeding infection and ruling out at privacy.  Services at the Referral Hospital are ostensibly provided for free, since most patients can barely afford to feed their families; yet there is often an unspoken (i.e. underground) but mutually-recognized exchange of money.

Patients are also expected to provide the bulk of care, cook and feed their relatives, deliver them to the hospital (unless an ambulance is available) and transport them back home – sometimes via tuktuk.

I wonder whether those Khmer who, though traumatized from accidents and injuries, and who are shuttled through the black gates on Highway 5, treated in OPD, operated on in the OT, and hospitalized and fed free of charge comprehend just how blessed and fortunate they are to be admitted into the exclusive club that is Emergency?

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