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Swedish medics with big hearts

Swedish medics with big hearts

Every day of her young life, blood squeezed through a tiny hole in Deth's heart.

Over time it weakened the vessels in her lungs, robbing the two-year-old of breath.

The X-ray on the hospital wall shows the overworked muscle looming large like a hazy

white cloud.

In most developed countries routine surgery would give her a long, healthy life.

But the only prospect in Cambodia was diagnosis and an early death.

A visiting team of Swedish surgeons changed that. Assisted by Khmer doctors at the

Centre de Cardiologie de Phnom Penh (CCPP), they successfully patched Deth's heart.

Two days later the little girl went home.

Since the team arrived last month, they have operated on 29 patients, an average

of two a day. The life-saving operations, which cost the patients nothing, are part

of CCPP's drive to make heart surgery more accessible to the estimated 20,000 Cambodians

who need it.

The profound lack of medical care inspired the Swedish surgical team to come to Cambodia.

The trip was a long-held dream of Kerstin Hansen, 60, an operating room nurse who

first glimpsed the country from Thai border camps in 1990.

She recalls listening to gunfire during operations and using banana leaves to sterilize

surgical instruments. After work, outside the Red Cross field hospital, she would

listen to the yearning of Cambodians to return home, dreams she grew to share as

well.

"I followed them back," said Hansen. "Even though they are poor, they

are rich in their hearts because they are home. The worst thing that can happen is

not to go back where you are from."

After reading a Phnom Penh Post article about CCPP in 2001, Hansen recruited friends

for a relief trip. At first, she said, only silence greeted her on the other end

of the phone.

"They probably didn't think it would happen," said Hansen. "But it

did happen. And I think it might happen again."

The five-person team - a pediatric heart surgeon, an operating nurse, a perfusionist

and two anesthesiologists - are already talking about returning next year. There

are looking at ways of sending equipment from Sweden to replace functioning but aging

machinery at the Center.

"Some people would call this a luxury," said Carl Dufke, a perfusionist

with the group. "But in the long run, these kids would eventually die. From

that view, this is not a luxury."

CCPP's two bustling operating rooms handled 444 heart operations last year. At least

600 are expected this year. The operations currently hinge on the charity of western

physicians, mainly French, who donate time and expertise. But a new generation of

Khmer surgeons envision a day when they can operate, and teach medicine, on their

own.

Dr Mam Bun Socheat, 31, a French-trained surgeon who performed Deth's operation,

is specializing in cardiology in Phnom Penh. He plans to be the first certified Khmer

heart surgeon at the center within four years.

"What we need most is instruments and more knowledge," said Dr Mam. "I

hope that we can perform heart operations [independently] in the future."

The cardiology center is also exporting its operations beyond Cambodia. Its sister

institute in Vietnam, the Saigon Institute of the Heart, has already treated 12,000

patients over the past 11 years.

Sponsors of the French-managed hospitals hope next year to have affordable medical

facilities, based on the Phnom Penh clinic, in Cameroon and the former Soviet republic

of Georgia.

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