A few steps away from the room where her four-year-old son was sprawled on an operating table, Khvay Sony listened intently as US heart surgeon Mike Mitchell calmly explained – through an interpreter – that he would be making a deep incision in the young boy’s chest to repair the aorta, a major artery that carries blood out of the heart.
The 36-year-old mother had travelled almost 500 kilometres from her village in Pursat province to treat what local doctors had told her was known as a coarctation, a narrowing of the aorta. When the aorta is narrow, it becomes challenging for the heart to pump blood and nutrients to the rest of the body.
During the surgery, while pacing the waiting room and halls of the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap town, Khvay Sony said she was “nervous” and “afraid”, but “happy” that her son was getting the procedure done.
A few hours later, Khvay Sony was sitting by his side, a big smile revealing that the surgery had been successful. “I’m so thankful they have the generosity and charity to help my child and make his life better,” she said.
Khvay Sony’s son was one of 15 patients treated last week for congenital heart defects by an American team of surgeons, cardiologists, technicians and nurses from Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California and the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee.
Such defects, which range in severity, but typically result in much lower life expectancy, affect about eight in every thousand children born in the Kingdom.
The 15-member team, whose personnel changes slightly from year to year, has been coming to the Angkor Hospital for Children annually since 2006, initially performing simple procedures and gradually progressing to more complex operations.
In August, the hospital received its first heart-lung machine, which is needed for performing open-heart surgery.
There is only one other such machine in the country, at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. But unlike Calmette, the Angkor Hospital for Children does not charge for its services, providing access to poor, rural Cambodians who otherwise would not be able to afford such procedures.
Although local staff members at the Angkor Hospital are not yet ready to perform open-heart surgery on their own, the goal is to train them so they eventually can.
“We want to train the local staff to do what we’re doing. Ultimately, we hope that one day, they won’t need us to come,” intensive-care unit nurse Sharon Levy said.
“It’s really inspiring to see the progression of the skill level of the staff. They’re all so open and receptive to any kind of teaching we can do.”
Sar Vuthy, a 42-year-old pediatric surgeon at the hospital, said training by the US group, and other foreign teams that visit, had taught him how to perform more challenging operations.
“I’m now able to close holes in people’s hearts. And I’m learning how to do complex open-heart surgery,” he said.
“It’s great, and I’m proud to be able to help patients that can’t afford to pay.”
Maraty Mat, 10, clad in a pink-and-white-striped dress that revealed the gauze bandages lining her chest, was one of those patients from Takeo province’s Traing district.
She underwent open-heart surgery last Monday to close a small hole in the upper chamber of her heart, a condition known as atrial septal defect.
“I’m so happy my daughter is cured,” her mother, Las Wert, 35, said as she left the hospital grounds with her healthy daughter, just four days after the operation.
The team members agree that moments like these make their annual trip worthwhile.
“To come here and see the sick children before surgery, then see them with a new life, is a great feeling. I don’t think I can find anything better than this to do,” Peter Chhun, executive director of Hearts Without Boundaries, a non-profit group that helped sponsor the US team, said.
Typically, the Long Beach-based organisation brings a Cambodian child to the US to undergo intensive heart surgery.
Last year, it sponsored four-year-old Bunlak Song, of Prey Veng province, to travel to the US to repair a hole in his heart, underscoring the lack of options in Cambodia for children born with congenital heart defects.
Chhun said bringing the treatment providers to Cambodia, however was much more cost-effective.
Susan Grossfeld, who founded the team in 2006 and co-ordinates their annual visits, said “words can’t describe” how it felt to return each year and see the progress of the patients.
“It’s so emotional to see the drastic change in the children, physically and psychologically.
“Now these children are doing simple kid things. They’re playing, they’re riding a bike, they’re going to school – they have energy,” she explained, as tears welled in her eyes.
Mike Mitchell, the team’s heart surgeon, says the annual trips “rejuvenate” his career and enable him to “focus on what it’s really all about”.
“The trip resets your balance as to what it is you are doing by being in medicine in the first place,” he said.
Lok Pheap, 41, of Prey Veng province, whose eight-month-old son returned home on Friday after receiving an operation that closed a vessel in his heart, had her own words of praise to shower upon the doctors.
“[My son] was once dead, and look at him now! It’s like a team sent by God to save lives,” she said.