Waiting, Trusting, Seeing in Cambodia

October 2016 | Stories from the field

By Yatzie Acosta

Chief Operating Officer

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Children’s Surgical Center

Yatzie waited four years before attending her first sight-restoring program. SEE encourages its staff members to volunteer for programs abroad, but Yatzie wanted to wait until her son, Alec, was old enough to serve alongside her. In October 2016, Yatzie and Alec visited the Children’s Surgical Center in Cambodia, one of very few pediatric-exclusive eye clinics that SEE coordinates; Yatzie opted to serve in the Cambodia program for this reason. 

Before departing for the program, her biggest fear was the language barrier. Although English is taught as a second language in Cambodia, the young children and their parents’ knowledge of the language was still extremely limited. In the well-staffed clinic, Yatzie and Alec were charged with managing the mood in the packed preoperative waiting area. To Yatzie, this was the most challenging part of the trip. For many children visiting the clinic in Cambodia, Dr. Kevin Winkle and the other clinic staff were familiar faces associated with the discomfort of eye dilations and prior surgeries. So in the preoperative room children were understandably anxious, afraid, and confused.

This hectic atmosphere, and the broken exchanges between the children’s parents and the SEE doctors, tugged at Yatzie’s heartstrings. “As a parent, I can put myself in their shoes… that’s something I didn’t expect or take into consideration when I decided to go to a pediatric clinic.”

Alec and Yatzie calmed the children with a universally beloved distraction: animal videos. A crowd of children gathered while Yatzie showed one girl a video of her dog on a tiny smartphone screen. Alec juggled to amuse the others, and the mood in the clinic markedly improved.

Once Yatzie and Alec entered the operating room, they witnessed Dr. Kevin Winkle, a longtime SEE volunteer, expertly perform dozens of intricate pediatric surgeries. Yatzie found that it was easy to focus on the surgical work itself while Dr. Winkle operated, sharing his expertise with local ophthalmological residents. But the significance of their work was never lost in the rapid pace of the day.

One young girl’s operation took three times longer than Dr. Winkle expected; he told Yatzie sadly that she would have to return for more operations to fully regain her sight.

The recovery room at pediatric clinics differs greatly from that of adult clinics. While most adult eye surgeries are performed with local anesthetic, children undergo general anesthesia. This means that there is no ‘big reveal’ with the removal of bandages after an operation. Instead, the children’s parents take them home to rest after surgery and bring them back to the clinic the next day for a follow-up. Even then, the children’s eyelids are often swollen, making it difficult to see right away.

Yatzie couldn’t attend all the follow-up appointments, but she and Alec trusted that with time the children they served in the clinic would go on to lead healthy childhoods. Yatzie envisions a future in which the nervous children in the waiting room are happily reading from a whiteboard in school alongside their peers and playing ball with their siblings.

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