In many ways, Map and Sothea were the perfect young Cambodian couple. Map, 23, is
a medical student and Sothea, 25, a law school graduate and manager of a successful
NGO. They've been engaged for two years, and have been sweethearts since they were
kids. Their life together was a happy one, they said, full of family, friends and
plans for the future.
A victim of an acid attack in which the corrosive chemical entered her eyes and burned her corneas.
Then earlier this year the couple suffered a nightmarish assault that altered their
lives for ever.
It all started on Sothea's way home from work. She'd had a long day and was glad
to be picked up, as usual, by Map.
"That night we left the center at around 7:30 pm," Sothea told the Post
days after the attack. "On the way two guys in their 20s, with black shirts
and a black moto, drove up on our left side. They drove fast and had no lights on.
"They pulled up next to us and the one on the back pulled a bottle from his
pants. Then he leaned over and splashed it on me. I have never felt such pain before."
The attackers fled and the couple quickly sought refuge inside a restaurant. Map's
shirt and pants were pockmarked by the chemical and he had light burns on his hand,
shoulder and waist.
But Sothea took the brunt of the attack directly in her face, and she had acid in
"At first it felt very hot, like boiling water, on my face," she said.
"Then it became hotter and hotter like fire on my skin. I knew it was acid on
my face. I was terrified. I was screaming."
They rinsed Sothea's face at the diner, but refused the call for an ambulance, fearing
it would take too long. Instead, they took a bucket of water with them on the motorbike
to wet her face. They arrived at Calmette Hospital, where emergency room technicians
washed Sothea's body and face.
"It was still burning like fire," Sothea said. "I couldn't see. I
could see only shadows at first, but after a while I could see less and less and
then I couldn't open my eyes at all.
"I was frightened that I would lose everything: my job, my happiness. I didn't
think my eyes would ever open. I cried a lot. I told them 'I'm scared.' I didn't
know if I would live or survive. I was trembling too much to stand.
"My fiancé was with me the whole time. He said, 'Don't worry, I will
still take care of you.' I knew he would. What I was thinking was about my eyes and
how to save my face.
"I was scared that I would become blind and my face would look like a monster.
It's more cruel than dying."
At Calmette, Sothea's employer was contacted. Luckily for Sothea, the employer's
doctor was Reid Sheftall, an American surgeon and burn specialist who also knew Sothea.
The employer phoned him and asked him to come urgently.
"I wasn't prepared," Sheftall said. "I've seen a lot of attacks, but
I've never treated someone I knew before. They hadn't even washed her off. The acid
was still burning her. Her hair follicles were burned off and she was hysterical.
She used a grip on my forearm that only doctors know. It means the patient is truly
terrified and near to shock. It means 'Please, don't let me die.'"
According to Sheftall, Sothea had first, second and third degree burns on her face.
He began to treat her eyes.
"I cringed when I looked at her eyes," Sheftall said. "When we pried
her eyes open, they were charcoal black. When I shined the light you could see there
were pronounced craters on the surface of both eyes. Her cornea was jet black. We
had to inject antibiotics directly into her eyeballs."
The doctors held Sothea's eyes open and flushed them repeatedly with a syringe of
sterile water. According to Sheftall, if they had not done this then, her corneas
would have been burned off.
"It was the first time I had known the victim of an attack like this,"
Sheftall said. "It was bad enough to make my knees buckle."
After more than two months of treatment, Sothea regained her sight. The base membrane
of the human cornea can regenerate, a medical specialist explained. In Sothea's case
the top seven layers were ruined, but when they sloughed off, new cells grew in.
A daily routine of debridement - the cutting away of dead tissue - as well as skin
graft and cosmetic surgery operations have prevented the extreme facial disfigurement
common in acid victims.
Today she is back at work and has begun a new life. Local specialist Dr Em Samney,
chief of the burn unit at Preah Kossamak Hospital, said Sothea is very fortunate
to have been given proper treatment in both the acute phase and burn reconstruction.
Phnom Penh news media reported that the attack was a mistake, and their attackers
were not apprehended.
"When I looked in the mirror for the first time, I cried," Sothea said.
"When I thought about it a little bit more, I felt happy and I cried. I was
afraid that I would look strange to other people if my eyes don't change color. The
optic doctor said I needed at least three to six months to see again, not fast like
Sothea and Map remain engaged. She says people who do not know her might think the
attack was the result of an ill-fated love triangle, but she and Map are not concerned.
"I am angry that they did this to me, but I don't want to do anything back to
them," she said. "I've always been so good to people, and tried to help
people. I didn't think this could happen to me. Why does God let these things happen
to good people?"
* Sothea's and Map's names have been changed to respect their privacy.