As a medical doctor, the volunteer organization IFRE placed me at the Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh for 2 weeks.
The application was not difficult, and I got a placement very short term (2 weeks) as I had been hoping.
Upon arrival, everybody got an introduction concerning the history of the country and local habits. Some even got an organized tour of Phnom Penh. The local office of IFRE was available almost night and day, every problem was solved promptly and very friendly. They even organized private trips for the volunteers on the weekends on request.
I stayed at a rather basic hostel, together with 8 other volunteers, mostly much younger than me. While the other volunteers were working at schools and orphanages, I was the only doctor.
That hostel already was quite an experience. No A/C. No pool or outdoor sitting area. No toilet paper (you are told to bring your own). The shower is very basic, too. Constant noise as the roads are very busy.
Of the three meals that are prepared for you every day, they wrap up your lunch nicely so you can eat it at the hospital.
I was introduced on the plastic surgery ward and immediately started working.
The work is pretty much organized the same way as in Germany ( and probably other western countries, too). Ward round, then surgery, once a week you work at the outpatient department.
The kind of medical conditions though are really not what I was used to. The Soviet Friendship Hospital, built in the early 1960s, was at some point the largest hospital South-Eastern Asia. It is built in a way that the wards are long balconies and the rooms for the patients are connected to this long balcony and have small openings in the wall facing the central courtyard. The rooms are cooled that way by the little bit of wind that is blowing. A good system, if flocks of birds would not fly in and out all day long.
My ward had 25 rooms with 4 patients each. And the amazing thing: healthcare is absolutely free.
Only the poorest of the poorest go there. The hygienic conditions are not optimal, of course. The materials rather old or cheap.
But staff does an awesome job there!
As most of the patients come from the really poor parts of town or remote vilages where there is literally no healthcare (and they couldn't afford it anyway), they show up with very advanced conditions. Bone tumors the size of oranges, having penetrated the skin weeks ago, infected all over. Weeks old open fractures. Chronic wounds. 10 huge lymph nodes on each side of the neck.
On my third day they started to let me do most of the surgery. The Cambodian doctors and students assisted me and asked many, many questions. It would have come in handy if I spoke French. But some of the colleagues spoke some English, and most of the reports were written in Roman letters, so communication worked quite well considering.
The workload sometimes was massive. The smell was unbelievable. But all in all it was absolutely enjoyable to work in such a motivated and interested environment.
Prepare though to struggle with the fact that the patients get absolutely no after treatment but a few antibiotic pills. Chemotherapy or Physiotherapy are not available. It must be hard for the doctors here to know, which ever effort they make, the outcome will be less than ideal. Most of the colleagues I met were at least partially trained in France or Korea.
At the end of the work day one passes the patients' relatives who live, wash and cook on the hospital premises, and take a TukTuk ( 2 USD) back to the hostel to have dinner with he other volunteers. The food is amazing, by the way.
You have to be flexible of course. Things don’t go your way all the time. You sometimes have to search all operating rooms on all levels of the hospital for scrubs. There will be no change of scrubs, and after the first surgery everything is wet with sweat. The sterile gloves have to be handled with care, the material tends to tear. You cannot do the same surgery twice back to back, they have each set of instruments just once.
Bring a white gown or 2, and blue T-Shirts, as well as toe covering shoes. You will need the shoes in the operating room, as special shoes are not provided. Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer, as it is not always available. Bring a lock so you can lock in your belongings at the hospital while you work.
So, this exoerience is not cheap, but very well organized and vey rewarding and interesting.
It was my first time volunteering abroad, and I can absolutely recommend it!