Texan heart surgery pioneer Dr Eugene Tragus has found himself at the wheel of a project turning cooking oil into biofuel to provide electricity for the Angkor Hospital for Children.
You can take the Texan out of Texas, but you can't take the oil out of a Texan, as Dr Eugene Tragus attests.
The 75-year-young former Dallas open-heart surgery pioneer and long-term volunteer at the Angkor Hospital for Children declares, "Yeah, I am now the oil baron of Siem Reap".
Tragus gave the Post a guided tour of a high-tech laboratory that's been set up on the edge of town, which is officially called the Green Imitative Project.
The project kicked off in January, and Tragus has this month taken charge, which simply involves collecting used cooking oil donated by hotels and restaurants and converting it to biodegradable diesel fuel. A further byproduct of the process is the manufacture of glycerine, which can be marketed as a heavy-duty degreaser for automobile repair shops and other businesses involving heavy, metal moving parts.
"This is a very amazing project," Tragus said. "What we are doing is we are taking used vegetable oil that's been used in cooking, collecting it, taking it to our plant and converting it into diesel fuel.
"The advantages of this are that it is a biodegradable process, it's environmentally friendly, and we expect it to have a heavy influence in the market in the future with the recurrence of rising oil prices.
"And one of the main advantages of our fuel is that when people who use it are driving, they won't smell diesel fuel, but they may smell french fries."
Out of India
The oil conversion plant is modelled on similar initiatives in India, Tragus said. "We didn't cook this little project up. It started in India, where they were using jatropha, and jatropha is something we will also consider in the future.
"Oil from different vegetables is being used throughout the world to be converted into diesel fuel, but here in Siem Reap we are converting used cooking oil. Plus, we are very fortunate here because we don't have to buy the used oil because all the hotels and restaurants are donating it to us because it's for the hospital and for the children.
"But we are dependent on the tourists, and our used oil collection is quite limited at this time. Last month we collected 1,500 litres, and this month it may only be 700 litres."
The project has set up a holding tank at the hospital for fuel to power a generator when electricity is down. The fuel will also be used for the hospital's trucks and vehicles. Soon it will power a generator at a new satellite hospital that's being constructed, and it will be distributed to power vehicles for orphanages.
A marketing programme is also being devised to sell the glycerine.
The expensive conversion laboratory was privately funded by a member of the hospital's board, and Tragus declined to reveal the start-up cost.
"It's not really appropriate to reveal the cost or the name of the donor," he said.
Tragus has a long, dynamic volunteer history with the Angkor Hospital for Children, signing on in 2001 as director of the emergency medicine department. Since 2004 he has been surgical consultant at the hospital. He initially came to Cambodia after the death of his wife from cancer and remarried five years ago to a local nurse, Sokunthea Lem, who has just completed her training as a doctor.
Tragus is a celebrated Siem Reap personage, a charming character with a mischievous Beatnik bent who is an ardent fan of singer and crime novelist Kinky Friedman, and he campaigned actively for the Kinkster's Texan gubernatorial push.
Tragus is noted for his energetic fundraising activities, but his biggest contribution is his expertise in heart surgery. He is a pioneer of open-heart surgery in America and hopes to see a cardiac unit established in Siem Reap to potentially save the lives of over 400 children who need hole-in-the-heart surgery.
In the 1960s he was a resident at the prestigious Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he was charged with developing heart surgery.
In 1953, US surgeon Dr John Gibbon used a heart-lung machine he had developed to successfully complete the world's first open-heart operation.
"Gibbons developed the heart lung machine down the street from us in Philadelphia, and in the 1960s we started doing hole-in-the-heart operations," Tragus said.
"It was new at that time, and I was doing this in my mid-20s. I was very fortunate to be there at the beginning of heart surgery and being part of it.
"It was the greatest thrill in the world, and during my senior year in the residency" at the university, he said, "my chief, as a reward, gave me a month to spend as much time at any top hospital I wanted to in the US.
"So I scrubbed with the biggies, I operated with the leading heart surgeons of the time, and it was fantastic."
A team of visiting surgeons recently conducted Siem Reap's first open heart surgery, opening the door to the creation of a fully functional heart facility at the hospital, and Tragus has certainly urged this project along, ruffling some feathers in his determination to get the job done.
It's an enormous life-saving step forward for the hospital, and perhaps Tragus's role is best summed up by the good doctor himself when he says, "I think I have made a contribution here".
Additional reporting by Marika Hill