Sok Oeuy was twelve when he was involved in a landmine accident in which two of his friends died. His legs were so badly shattered that amputation seemed inevitable, but fifteen years later he’s healthy, able-bodied and working fulltime at the Angkor Hospital for Children, the very hospital that helped save him.
“I lived in Anlong Veng district and in 1999 I was twelve years old,” says Sok. “One day I went to feed the cows with my four friends. One of my friends stood on a landmine, and it blew up. Two of my friends died. I was the lucky one.”
At that time, local doctors in the district were unequipped to deal with Sok’s injuries, and instead brought him to Angkor Hospital for Children.
“The doctor could not do anything for my legs,” says Sok. “He didn’t have the experience so they brought me here. The doctor here could not do anything either, he just wanted to cut off my legs. I stayed here for four months.”
As fate would have it, a visiting doctor and plastic surgeon from Hawaii, Dr Gunther Hintz, was at the hospital and was introduced to Sok. Hintz is also founder and president of the NGO Medicorps.
“Dr Gunther saw my legs and told the doctor there was no need to amputate,” says Sok. “He said he could make my legs better and help me walk.”
Sok was flown to Honolulu where he spent over a year undergoing reconstructive surgery, skin grafts and physiotherapy at the Shriners Hospital for Children.
“The first time I arrived in hospital it was very painful. I cried for my parents,” says Sok. “I just slept on the bed for two or three months.”
At the time Hintz spoke to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about the severity of Sok’s injuries.
"His legs looked like chopped meat and broken bones were sticking out," Hintz told the paper in 2000. Sok also suffered shrapnel cuts to his face and body.
Despite the enormous linguistic and cultural shift in Sok’s life, he coped well in a new environment, quickly learning English and adjusting to the big city of Honolulu, where he spent fourteen months.
Members of the local Cambodian community helped make the adjustment smoother as his condition improved, by taking him into their homes.
“When I could walk a little bit the doctor and nurses would bring me outside, or take me swimming,” he says. “I liked it there, it was very nice. I learnt English from the doctors and nurses. I learnt step by step.”
Sok says he enjoyed going outside and observing the bustling city with its busy streets and traffic, a world away from his home in Anlong Veng.
When Sok eventually returned to Cambodia in 2001 he spoke better English than he did Khmer, and had changed so much his family barely recognised him.
“When I first came back my parents came to pick me up from the airport and I said, ‘Hello father’ in English. My father said, ‘Oh you are not my child. You are not my son. My son is Khmer not English’.”
“He was very surprised. When I went away, my father was taller than me. When I came back after one year I was taller than him.”
Sok says he had to re-learn Khmer as he had not spoken the language in such a long time.
Through the support of doctors and community members in Honolulu, Sok was able to go to school in Siem Reap and eventually get a job volunteering at Angkor Hospital for Children. This led to a permanent position in 2009, and Sok now works in purchasing.
Sok still sees Dr Hintz, who is now based in Phnom Penh, on his occasional visits to the hospital. Since Sok’s treatment, Dr Hintz has similarly helped four other children.
“He brought two boys and two girls to Hawaii to help them like he helped me,” says Sok. “One boy was burnt as a small child and could only walk with one leg. He just had one leg when he went to Hawaii, now he has two.”
Sok is now fully mobile and rides a bicycle to work every day.
“Everything is ok now,” he says. “If I walk for a long time – like 2 or 3 kilometres – my legs hurt. But just walking around is fine. I ride a bicycle. But I can’t play football or basketball – if someone kicks me it’s very painful.”
He adds that if hadn’t met Dr Hintz, his life would be very different.
“There would be no school, no work, no walking. It would have been very bad.”