A Day in the Life of a Volunteer in Cambodia (Volunteering as a Doctor)


I am posting this extract from the emails I send back to family and work colleagues from my adventures volunteering in Cambodia. There are lots of medical details because I send these to the doctors and nurses at my work.

I’m back in Cambodia for the fourth time to do a few weeks volunteer work.

One of my briefs on this trip is to help a 22 year old man named who has experienced some terrible misfortunes in health over the last 3-4 years. He comes from a rural village, some 2.5 hours drive from Phnom Penh. 1.5 years he ago went blind gradually over a 6 month period. He had suffered severe headaches in the previous 3 years but these finally resolved as he lost his vision. Because of his crippling headaches and later his blindness, he had taken to bed and had laid on a wooden slat bed ( no mattress) for 15 months and had developed an enormous pressure sore on his sacrum (lower back). From the photo I saw of it, it must have been 20 by 10 cm. On top of all that, he became incontinent of urine about 6 months ago and since then he has leaked through his sarongs and the slat bed into bowl underneath.

An Australian volunteer from another charity organization met this young man and his elderly parents about 3 months ago. She was horrified by his condition, especially his bedsore. He was unable to sit up himself and he had been lying on his back so long that his muscles had weakened and his achilles tendons had shortened so he couldn’t put his feet flat on the floor. She asked the head of our organization for advice and the advice was that he needed Vitamin C and better nutrition. He also needed to change position frequently so to take the pressure off his sacrum. He needed mobilizing. Since that time the amazing Australian volunteer and his parents have been working intensely with him. She has purchased for him mandarins and other vegetables and fruit to supplement his diet as his family could not afford it.

Since the Australia volunteer is returning to Australia for a break, we bought him and his mother to Phnom Pehn for 1-2 weeks while I am here so we can continue his rehab, including working on the incontinence problem. So I went with a small team to pick them up in a van today. A photo of the bed sore 5 weeks ago showed it had improved a lot but we were unsure it would fully heal and so I bought some special dressings over with me to Cambodia.

When we met him today we were absolutely AMAZED by the progress he has made him. We lowered his sarong expecting to see the gaping whole we had seen in the photo from 5 weeks before, but were shocked and delighted to find the defect had filled in completely. No fancy dressings required, just decent nutrition and getting him off his backside, literally!!

He is now able to sit up by himself and walk with the help of 2 people, albeit very unsteadily. He proudly showed us the exercises he has been doing and you could see he had his spark back.

We put him in some adult diapers for the journey back to PP and we are going to try some urodomes (an adherent condom-like thing that drains to a catheter bag) I got from the district nursing service back in New Zealand. I think his incontinence is his biggest hurdle now. We would like to introduce him to something like the Seeing Hands charity who trains blind people to be masseurs, but this will not be possible if he remains incontinent. He and his mum are staying on the ground floor of one of our charity’s three rented homes for their sponsored students.

I asked if there was anyone else in the community who had serious health problems and was introduced to a 12 year old boy who’s vision has been slowly deteriorating. When you ask him to look at you he always turns his eyes to the left and looks at you from out of the corner of his eyes. He was able to count my fingers with each eye individually but said he could not see clearly. When I examined him in a dark room with my opthalmoscope I was unable to see his retinae. His pupils looked a dense opaque grey colour, indicating that he probably has cataracts. I would actually love this to be the case because cataracts can be fixed. I plan to contact the Fred Hollows Cambodia Foundation and see if I can get him seen by them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could save his sight 🙂

Update: Within 4 months the Fred Hollows Cambodia Foundation had removed his cataracts and returned his sight to him. I was able to meet up with him again the following February and he was back to being a normal, happy boy.


  1. // Reply

    Interesting. I would love to learn more about this as I am studying to be a Physician Assistant and would love to do some medical volunteerism around the globe.

      1. // Reply

        Hi, may I know what are the paperwork needed to do medical volunteering in Cambodia? Is there somewhere we can apply, or a website? Thanks, Kenny

  2. // Reply

    Such an honour to be able to use your medical training like this. Well done you!

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