February 2011

Dear friends and partners,

I want to share with you the beginning of our latest outreach. It’s Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. I know there are many of you who ask, “Now where did this come from?” I would love to say simply from my own journey with breast cancer but that’s not true – the breast cancer is the catalyst of a turning point of the journey – not the beginning.

Over the years of Tabitha a number of people have approached me about preventive health care. I have a problem with prevention because it often teaches people about their problems but in our work, there is often no cure. When the AIDS epidemic took hold in Cambodia back in 1997, those of us working in the field were told to educate people. But education is not enough – at that time - there was no treatment available – and people discovering that they were in the process of dying, really hurt. I am happy about teaching the simpler ones like clean water, good nutrition, etc but anything more in-depth has always brought me a shudder for there is really no where to send folks who are suffering. It haunts me.

This past year a number of women have died in our program – women who could have been saved or at least comforted in their own life’s journey. Sowanta is a woman who lived in Savy Rieng province. She developed breast cancer – by the time the breast was engorged with disease, it was almost too late. Her and her husband sold their land – the land that fed their seven children. She went to Vietnam and had a mastectomy – her lymph nodes were removed and she returned home. As a woman she was expected to carry out her daily tasks – they lived in a thatched hut – they had a few farm animals and within a few weeks, her surgical sites were infected. She had no money to return to Vietnam – she had borrowed and received help from all those she knew – but there was no more. It took her 2 months to die – 2 months of indescribable pain – 2 months to say good-bye.

Every time I go on a site visit, I am confronted with women who are in pain. Last week, I met Sina – a young mother with four children. She had asked me for help a few months ago and I had told her to go to a hospital for the poor in Phnom Penh. She came and waited for three days – that’s all the money she had. Her number never came up. She went to a local doctor – he said she had a severe vaginal and uterine infection – her womb and her uterine track are full of cysts – he removed three of them – told her not to worry – but the oozing is still there and the number of cysts keep growing. Her younger sister works for us at Tabitha – she too, has an infection and cysts – their mother died a few years ago from this same ailment – they look to me for help but there is little I can do – they are so afraid that they too will die – they are too young – only in their 20’s.

Then, I find a breast lump and with hours everything is prepared for my care. People are distraught – why you? My response, why not me – I, too, am just a person. But my question to myself is different, why do I get all the care that I need? Why am I so special? I am no different – different circumstances, yes, but the same as all the women that I meet. The same desires, hopes and fears. I too, want to live.

In my personal faith, my God says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To do so means that I either love myself less and take no medical care or I love myself the same and provide medical care for the women that I live amongst – for they are my neighbors!

So I dreamed a dream –I want to have a hospital for my neighbors. I shared my vision with Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi – an extra ordinary woman who happens to be the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Her response was immediate and simple. I have always wanted to do this – this is my dream. Phavy’s life has been anything but easy – like so many here she suffered under the Khmer Rouge, became a refugee, ended up in France where she finished her education, became a medical doctor, and practiced for ten years . In the early 90’s she returned to Cambodia, lived in the forest for 4 years fighting her battles for freedom. She became a staff of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and ten years ago became the Minister. She is a woman of extra ordinary integrity and courage – highly respected by all who know her. Phavy has a daughter, Mony who contracted thyroid cancer a few years back – she was treated and Mony is a survivor. Both of us treated by the best in Singapore. Phavy’s husband, Trac Thai Sieng is an extra ordinary man. He loves his wife, his country, the dream – he stands with us as we move forward to accomplish our dream.

We have 2 hectares of land in the midst of women who work in factories – women from all over the country – who live meanly – 12 to a small room, work 12 hour days – 6 days a week – women who send what they earn, home to their families. They are so young – their youth is eaten away with the burdens they bear – they are our neighbors. Their mums and sisters live poorly – perhaps we can bring some comfort, some meaning to their lives when they are tired and ill. Our hospital is called Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital. It is a vision, a dream that includes prevention and education, that includes research into the most common of women’s illnesses here. Our vision is not cheap – it will cost 5.5 million to build and another 5.5 million to outfit because women’s cancer is part of this dream – and the machines required are expensive. It sounds impossible but not if the burden is shared by many. To build we only need 120 people to donate $50,000 each or 240 people to donate $25,000.00. each. To outfit we need to do the same. For our poorest neighbors – treatment will cost very little – perhaps a dollar – for our neighbors who can afford more – we will charge more. For all women, we will have an open door. I have shared this vision with a few of you. Your response has helped us to clarify our vision – to dream big dreams – to make sure we do it right. To share my personal journey as we do this process – I have created a blog that contains some of my reflections – its jannenokortep.blogspot.com A friend is working on a formal web page – I am limited in IT skills. I thank my God for the privilege of dreaming dreams – of showing me the way forward – I thank my God for each of you who share this journey with us. It is so very good.


Stories of Cambodian Women


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