Smith explores, helps others in exotic Cambodia
Traveling around the world on vacation, and living around the world with the local people, are two completely different experiences. You don't learn very much from visiting. You learn from getting your hands dirty and a few bruises.
On Sept. 15, I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer, a moment that I waited a very long time for.
Toward the end of my nine-week intense and extensive training, I told my country director, "The hardest part of this experience so far for me has been the 16-hour flight." Training took place in the Kandal Province about an hour's drive away from the capitol of Cambodia.
I lived with two single women, who are close to my age, with no kids. My days started early with my morning bucket shower and a short bike ride through a village to my training site. I would ride my bike with motos beside me, dump trucks honking and trying to pass me, and sometimes a cow in the middle of the road.
I would dodge puddles and pot holes and think to myself, "I am riding a bike through a village in Cambodia! How cool is this?"
In training, we covered everything from language, to health practicums in clinics, bike maintenance, learning the national anthem, and how to properly hand wash your own clothes.
The days were long, but we received an excellent crash course on Cambodia. We had local experts teach us language, history, culture, as well as share personal heartbreaking stories of the Khmer Rouge Era. Peace Corps does an excellent job of covering all of the bases for personal health and public safety.
Peace Corps is more than just volunteering in a country. It is about connecting, building relationships and sharing your story and experiences with the people around you. Patience, respect, resiliency, and humility are the key ingredients to success. A warm smile and taking the time to meet people can go a long way.
Cambodian people have been very welcoming and eager to learn about Americans. Cambodians are kind, patient and very calm. I have enjoyed exploring "wats" (Buddhist temples), local markets and trying new foods.
Each night, my host sisters would introduce me to a new fruit or vegetable. I have eaten silk worms and ants, and enjoyed both! Basically, anything caramelized and grilled is delicious! I often snack on corn, sweet potatoes and fresh fruit with a homemade chili sauce that always satisfies my palate.
I went into this experience with no expectations. I came prepared to be adaptable, open-minded and flexible. I came ready to work hard and find a way to make a difference. The Peace Corps motto is "The toughest job you'll ever love," and for me, this has certainly been true.
I am currently sitting on my balcony from my new permanent site. I am watching water buffalos walk down the road and listening to crickets and various bugs. It has been raining on and off today.
I have about 70 volunteers in my cohort. After training, we were each placed in a different region of Cambodia. We didn't get to choose our site placements. I won the lottery with my placement. I have been placed in Pursat (pronounced Po Sat). I am about a four-hour drive west of the capitol.
My Province borders Thailand and features waterfalls, mountains, lush forests, floating villages, and rice fields. Pursat is known for producing orange trees as well as having a rich history in marble and sculptures.
I measure distance by how long it takes me to bike somewhere. I live about an hour bike ride from the nearest city. And about a 27-minute bike ride from the nearest market, where I can find fresh fruit, soap and tools.
I live in a rural farming area where rice and sugar palm trees are the main crops. My permanent site family lives on a small farm with chickens, kittens, a dog, two cows on about four acres.
My host sister is a school librarian, her husband works for the military at a base nearby. They have two toddler boys who bring me nothing but joy and laughter.
I work in a rural community health clinic that is about a five-minute bike ride from my house. The front entrance of my clinic includes a beautiful landscaping area with picnic tables for patients. I work with a staff of nine people. They are young and hip. I refer to them as the "Grey's Anatomy of Cambodia."
My clinic serves up to 12,000 people per month with about 20 births per month. During training, we were taught how to take blood pressures, teach nutrition education, breastfeeding, sexual education. and weigh babies.
We were also trained to be able to teach proper handwashing and sanitation, along with being knowledgeable about pregnancy warning signs. We were trained to do all of this in the Khmer language.
I will primarily work in the clinic and I will conduct home visits. Our biggest goal is building sustainability, awareness and education. I will be collecting data to track community health needs, where I will then write a grant to create a project that creates sustainability. I will also be teaching health education in local schools as well as teaching English to my health staff and anyone else in my village who wants to learn English.
Our training program was very efficient and included a high quality of understanding the Cambodian health care system, past and present. With that said, my second day at work was a day that I will never forget.
I had started arriving early at the clinic to help the one midwife, who was on duty, to sweep the floors. The clinic was closed due to a Buddhist holiday (Pchum Ben). The midwife and I bonded over listening to music and laughing while cleaning.
The midwife had to step out to go to the local temple to give thanks to the monks. As I was sitting there wondering if the water buffalos standing by the gate wanted me to check his blood pressure, I suddenly heard someone shouting 'lokkru lokkru.' Four men were yelling the word 'doctor' as they carried in a man who was shaking and bleeding and clearly needing some immediate help.
My first thought was basic first aid and CPR. I needed to find gloves quickly. I led the men to a minor surgery room (the clinic does not have a trauma area). I then scrambled to find something to put on the blood to stop the bleeding.
The patient was bleeding out of his mouth, injuries on his chest, blood everywhere. I struggled with finding the source of the blood. At this point I was operating under pure adrenaline and instincts. My main goal was to do everything I could with limited resources and limited vocabulary to help this man.
I was the only staff member there to help him. The man was breathing heavily and shaking. Once he was on the bed, I basically tried to put pressure on his chest where he was bleeding from. Finally, the midwife returned. She rushed in and put in an IV (an old water bottle with saline water). I assisted her with holding the man down, cleaning blood and keeping everyone calm.
I eventually cleaned blood off the man for what seemed like forever I and was determined not to leave his side until further help arrived. Family members were in the room with me all looking at me with hope and worry. We were finally able to control some of the bleeding, however the patient was clearly in a lot of pain.
About 45 minutes later, a rural ambulance arrived to take the patient to a nearby town. I helped carry him to the ambulance and wished him well. He was lucky that an ambulance arrived, as ambulances are rare in rural areas. I was thankful that I had taken numerous first aid/CPR courses in Oregon. I will never forget his face as he laid there on that bed in pain.
My third day at work was just as intense, however I was able to act a lot calmer with more confidence as I helped with a patient who was brought in after having a miscarriage.
We have to do the best we can with what we have. We are all here on our own journey. For me, Peace Corps is a mental toughness. Every day, I tell myself, "What you put into this experience is what you will get out of it." I can hear my dad saying to me, "Quitters don't win, and winners don't quit."
This isn't a competition for me about who can have the craziest Peace Corps story. I am integrated, building trust and relationships with my village and I care about these people and I won't quit on trying my best.
This morning, I went into the clinic on my day off to check on two patients who had babies early in the morning. I promised them that I would check on their babies' well-being. I wanted the patients to know that I am here ready to help and that I am available. One of the mothers looked up at me and smiled and handed me her baby that was only a few hours old.
Compassion and empathy are born from feeling what another feels; only then can we begin to understand and strive to lend a hand to each other. In Cambodia, I feel love, respect, and pride through the people I meet.
I have been in Cambodia for a little over two months. My experiences have varied from visiting beautiful wats, listening to tragic stories, exploring places called "magic mountain," eating bugs, getting drenched in rain storms and climbing 300 stairs on a mountain in the middle of nowhere to see a temple.
When I was 14 years old, I told myself that I would join the Peace Corps to help people and change the world. Little did I know that helping people would become my world and change me.
Cambodia is known as the, "Kingdom of Wonder." I wonder what the next two years will bring me?