- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

PAILIN, Cambodia — Not all soldiers make war, though Cambodians could be excused for thinking so as they recover from three decades of armies inflicting misery on them.The family of Hem Sophal learned soldiers can be healers, too. U.S. military doctors on temporary duty in northwestern Cambodia patched up the 23-year-old farmer after his hand was nearly blown off when his hoe struck a land mine.When his family rushed the young man with mangled hand, cracked ribs and punctured lung six miles by truck over dirt tracks to the hospital in Pailin, they did not know that a mobile surgery team from Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii was there.The Americans had come for a two-week training mission, and had set up two mobile operating theaters — air-conditioned, high-tech tents — next to the rundown municipal hospital surrounded by grazing cattle and scavenging goats.Not many members of the U.S. military have spent much time in Pailin, a town near Cambodia’s western border with Thailand. It was a stronghold of communist Khmer Rouge rebels until seven years ago.Pailin was chosen for the mission because it is in a part of Cambodia littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance from more than 30 years of war and unrest, making it a laboratory for treatment of battlefield injuries.”It’s a training mission for us to handle blast trauma,” said Lt. Col. Dallas Homas, a reconstructive and plastic surgeon from the Cleveland area who led the 17-soldier team from the U.S. Army’s Pacific Regional Medical Command. “There’s also a humanitarian aspect — bringing first-class surgery to people who normally wouldn’t have access to it.”When Hem Sophal was brought in, the American medical team worked quickly, draining his lung to stabilize his condition.Then Maj. John Faillace of Huntsville, Texas, and Maj. Mark Pallis of Branchville, N.J., got to work rebuilding his hand. Though the thumb could not be saved, Hem Sophal is expected to have almost normal use of the four remaining fingers.Had he not been able to get that First World treatment, Mr. Hem’s hand probably would have been amputated and his breathing complications might have killed him, Cambodian and U.S. doctors agreed.”I was very happy to see foreign doctors. I am lucky,” Mr. Hem said while sweating in bed in a recovery room crowded with patients, their families, cooking stoves, flies and mosquitoes.Cambodia’s health care system was devastated by years of war and neglect, and the government lacks the resources for improvements. The country also has a shortage of trained medical personnel because most of its doctors were killed, as were many other educated people, during the radical rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.Pailin’s hospital, comprising several one-story, open-air concrete buildings, lacks running water and steady electricity. Though well-stocked with supplies and medicines, it is short of modern equipment and adequately trained personnel.”Taking all into consideration, this is the worst hospital I’ve worked in,” said Col. Homas, who also has worked in grim conditions in such places as the Palestinian territories and Honduras.Radio announcements about the Americans doing free surgery attracted patients from more than 65 miles away, some crossing jungles and mountains.Almost every day during the team’s two-week stay, dozens of families lined up before dawn. Capt. Kent DeZee, a physician from McDonald, Ohio, specializing in internal medicine, evaluated prospective patients — some 360 men, women and children in all. Doctors had to turn away dozens, lacking the time or supplies to treat them.Col. Homas’ squad, which included five surgeons, two other doctors, physical therapists, operating-room technicians, nurses and support staff, operated on 84 Cambodians, sometimes working past midnight.More than a dozen people were treated for traumatic injuries, including six from explosions, two from chemical burns and several from motorbike accidents, Capt. DeZee said.Most of the other patients suffered from goiter, cleft lips, hernias and polio-related orthopedic disorders — ailments common in poor, rural areas of the tropics.Doctors also dug out pieces of shrapnel that had been embedded for years in several old soldiers’ bodies, and improved the appearance of bad scars. A man struck in the face with an ax years ago had his nose and upper lip reconstructed.Mup Sophoan, 26, lost his right hand and took shrapnel in the face and chest when a land mine exploded in February while he was clearing land of branches and shrubs so he and his brother could plant soybeans and corn.He said the traditional “magic” tattoos that cover much of his body were designed to ward off evil spirits in fields, forests and jungles. They had protected him for seven years and he didn’t know why “the power’s now gone.”“This is an amazing experience for our team because they’re seeing injuries, wounds, diseases that they’ve before mostly only read about in books,” Col. Homas said. “We simply almost never see many of these problems back at home.”

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