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A lifeline to Cambodia's poor


Fully equipped floating outpatient dental and medical clinic provides free care and education to people in Kampong Cham and Kandal provinces 

Photo by: Camilla Bjerrekær

Li Afini, 13, is examined by dentist Rick Northen. A piece of the tooth has been causing her pain for several months.

ASHIP, a doctor, a dentist and a very dedicated crew have helped thousands of people in poverty along the shores of the Mekong and Bassac rivers to cure disease and alleviate toothaches since they set sail in March 2007.

The project, called the Ship of Life, offers a fully equipped floating outpatient dental and medical facility, a laboratory and a pharmacy dispensing free medical care to people in need in Kampong Cham and Kandal provinces. The ship is run by the Christian NGO Partners in Progress.

Rick Northen heads the operation as chief dentist and project director. Many of his patients have never been to a dentist, while those who have never received treatment from a qualified practitioner.

"We combat a lot of ignorance and superstition. It is very common for me to hear, ‘If you take out my tooth, will I go blind?'" Northen said.

Northen and his wife, Gail, have been living and working on the ship for more than a year. Some 13 other staffers also share quarters aboard the ship - four Americans and nine Cambodians, including a doctor, pharmacist, ship's captain and engineer.

Reaching out

"Our primary goal is to reach out to those who cannot afford [medical treatment]," Northen said.

Our primary goal is to reach out to those who

cannot afford [medical treatment].

Northen said the ship typically gets about 125 patients on any given day. "Sometimes, we have had as many as 800 people seeking treatment in a day, so we can only see a fraction of those," he said.
The ship's doctor treats minor injuries and illnesses, and prescribes free medication and vitamins. More serious or surgical cases are referred to provincial hospitals or facilities in Phnom Penh.

The crew also tries to educate patients while they are on board. "We show videos ... on hygiene, nutrition, disease prevention, bird flu, dengue fever and mosquito [bite] prevention while they wait," said Gail Northen, who operates the ship's triage station.

Typical day

On this day, the ship is offering a single-day session on the Chruoy Changvar side of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh - its final day of operation before going into dry-dock for six weeks to undergo repairs.

Patients line up along the shore to receive numbered slips before hurrying up the gangplank to the ship's triage station, where Gail and her staff check their vitals before they see the doctor or dentist.

Sisters Ya Afini, 18, and Li Afini, 13, have come aboard with the hope of easing toothaches that have troubled them for months. Li Afini is first up. Most of her right front tooth is missing, except for a gray stump sticking out of her gum. She has been in constant pain for the better part of a year.

She winces as Northen administers a local anesthetic, her eyes wide with fear.

"I am scared because I think it will hurt," she said, but feels nothing but relief when the rotted tooth is extracted.

Northen does tooth extractions on most of his patients, but he also does fillings and teeth cleaning.

With the help of an additional volunteer doctor from Phnom Penh, 134 patients receive medical treatment during the session, and another 60 receive dental work.

"It breaks my heart to have to take the...teeth out of these little girls, but there is nothing I can do.... So we simply try to make it not hurt," Northen said.



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