Soth Rey, an 18-year-old from Siem Reap who was stricken by a rare case of necrosis, a form of rapid cell degeneration, said yesterday she never believed that a small pain in her nose could lead to the loss of her face.
Lying in her hospital bed in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok International University Hospital, the young woman’s eyes well up with tears as she recounts how an unknown doctor in Siem Reap removed her teeth, leading to the infection.
Rey has been in the hospital since February 27, after developing ulcers in her nose following a sinus infection. The doctor she visited decided to pull some of her teeth. After that, necrosis set in.
“I feel better than I did when I first arrived in the hospital, but I’m bored and would like to go for a walk,” Rey says. Most of all, she would like to eat solid food.
“I am craving everything,” she says. “I want to eat fried rice.”
For now, Rey has a feeding tube inserted in her stomach. She has gained 4 kilograms over the past 10 days, a step in the right direction.
“Her condition is critical but stable,” says Dr Ivan Matela, one of the doctors caring for Rey. “[But] she needs 24-hour professional care.”
The infection that caused Rey’s nose and right cheek to disintegrate has improved but is not entirely gone. Likewise, the pneumonia in her right lung is persisting. Although the necrotic process has stopped thanks to high doses of antibiotics, the tissue surrounding the wound is inflamed and must be cleaned daily.
In several days, the doctors will perform surgery to remove the dead tissue around her wound. The goal is to save as much of the face as possible so that Rey can eventually undergo reconstructive surgery. The doctors will also determine whether it is possible to save her right eye.
But the chronic infection and loss of body weight have weakened Rey’s immune system, which will require vitamin therapy, blood transfusions and a range of other treatments to recover. The doctors are now importing a medication called Pentaglobin, which is used for patients with severely compromised immune systems.
“They didn’t have it in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam or Singapore,” the doctor explains. Meanwhile, Rey is growing increasingly anxious about the fate of her face.
“She is demanding to see herself, but we are refusing to give her a mirror,” says Yulia Khouri, a Phnom Penh resident who began leading the effort to help Rey after hearing about her case on an online forum.
Khouri says Rey will need significant psychological care to overcome the trauma of the illness, and for now it’s better if she does not realise the extent of her disfigurement.
Still, Rey is aware that she will need long-term medical care. Wiping a tear from her left eye, which peeks out from beneath the bandage covering the hole where her cheek once was, she asks Khouri when her face will be better.
“It will take some time,” Khouri explains, gently.
But getting Rey the surgery she needs will require resources. Even the medicines working to heal her body are expensive, says Dr Matela.
Khouri has led the fundraising effort to pay for Rey’s medical bills, which she has volunteered to cover herself. An event at Chinese House last weekend succeeded in raising $3,237.
On Sunday, March 19, the Mansion Heritage Bar in the capital will host a concert fundraiser for Rey. Another fundraising event will take place the same day in Siem Reap.
Khouri has also set up a dedicated Wing account and a Just Giving page for donations. An auditing firm has volunteered to help her track the donations and how they are used.
Still, doctors say there will be many stages to the treatment before Rey is fully recovered. Even after she is well enough to leave the hospital, there will be caregivers’ bills to pay for.
Through it all, Rey is determined to get better.
“I know I am very moody, and I hope the doctors and nurses don’t mind,” she says. “I just want to recover soon.”