Captain Jon Morgan, a life-long social worker, hopes to bring basic
medical care to far-flung villages dotting the Great Lake, where few
people have seen a doctor
Photo by: Photo Supplied
A Ministry of Health nurse, part of the TLC-1 crew, immunises children at Stung Chrov (Deep River).
THE inaugural passage across the Tonle Sap lake of the good ship TLC-1 - or The Lake Clinic, Cambodia's first floating medical facility - started off a pleasant jaunt but ended up a rum voyage, a nautical nightmare that left Captain Jon Morgan shivering in his timbers.
The squall "happened in an instant", he said.
A withering wind whistled across the waters, whipping up waves that became fists of froth and fury buffeting the fragile craft.
"We had to cope with waves that were so large my knees were shaking," Morgan said.
"We first attempted to cross the lake just after the elections. This is a nine-metre boat, and the waves were washing up on deck. The waves were so big that the engine was ... popping up out of the water, and when your engine is out of the water, well, then you have no control of your boat," he added.
Morgan turned around and found shelter in a small village.
"We waited a couple of mornings until the water was like glass and off we went again."
That incident was one of several near-disasters, from monsoon deluges to faulty boat controls, that bedeviled the The Lake Clinic Cambodia NGO after its July 30 launch.
But the indefatigable Captain Morgan, discovering there is many a slip twixt boat yard and smooth sailing, got it right, and began delivering medical services and volunteer doctors to seven lake villages 30-60km from the nearest health facility.
Dream in the making
Morgan's craft is a dreamboat project that he's envisaged for years.
"This is a very simple boat. When I first started raising funds, I had grand plans of a totally self-sufficient floating polyclinic that would house 15 staff and could cruise for an indefinite period time," said Morgan, a lifelong social worker.
"But the price tag was over US$100,000 and my fundraising topped off around $50,000. I knew that any more money-raising efforts were dependant on me having a working operation."
Morgan reassessed his budget and took pictures of houseboats in Louisiana to boat builders in Phnom Penh.
Unimpressed by what he saw, he decided to build the boat himself in Siem Reap.
"I was looking for material, namely plywood and fiberglass, when through one of those six degrees of separation I found the name of a Swedish boat company in Phnom Penh, Sweline Boat Industries Ltd Cambodia," he said.
WE GO TO A LOT OF ISOLATED VILLAGES WHERE PEOPLE ... HAVE NEVER SEEN A DOCTOR.
"I was raised ... around boat builders. As soon as I walked into the boat yard I knew it had the right smell."
What Morgan eventually ended up with was "basically a houseboat" that has enough room for the ample medical supplies Morgan has to carry.
But the old saying that you make your luck is true for Morgan. Having charted a course of getting a start - any start - to pave the way for more funding, he landed the big one.
Just as he was ready to launch TLC-1, representatives of Impact Forum Norway, which supports a hospital ship in Bangladesh, arrived in Siem Reap to check out his operation.
"They came to Cambodia wanting to replicate that sort of project," he said.
"We met here in Siem Reap for about 20 minutes one morning and they had researched me quite thoroughly."
The group, Morgan said, picked up the tab for the rest of 2008, and will likely fund as much as 90 percent of next year's operational budget.
"Last month they brought designers to Siem Reap to go out on the lake with me and look at what kind of boat design can come close to that long-time dream of mine."
Making an impact
Impact Forum Norway will return next week for more talks about the project, but in the meantime TLC-1 works the lake, dispensing, diagnosing and advising.
Morgan said the work on the lake isn't dramatic, as the boat is not designed for surgery or laboratory work. But even mundane medical ministrations are vital to the isolated villages.
"Emergencies are rare. We go to a lot of isolated villages where people in their 30s and 40s have never seen a doctor, and we tend to the children who are lucky enough to make it through the first five years," he said.
But in the short time TLC-1 has plied the waters of Tonle Sap, lives have been saved.
"At one village we came across a boy who was bitten by a snake. The nature of that snake's venom was that it clots the blood, so gangrene had set in on his finger and was progressing," he said.
"We brought [the child and mother] back to the hospital in Siem Reap and the finger was immediately amputated. About 10 days later we were back in that village and able to change that boy's dressing."