I stepped off the busy thoroughfare in Phnom Penh, leaving the din of tuk-tuks and motorbikes behind me as I headed down a side street to the black gate of 7C. As I entered through the front door, I saw student and instructor talking quietly at a table in the far corner of the room. It was just another private tutorial session between the director of the clinic and an aspiring audiologist at All Ears Cambodia, but the picture exemplified the strong and direct connection that this NGO has with the local Khmer community.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City last weekend and enjoyed the sights and sounds as the Vietnamese celebrated the start of the New Year. Our Mobile Mission team is scheduled to arrive in a few days, but first on my agenda was a quick trip to Phnom Penh and All Ears Cambodia. This NGO is the largest of its kind in the country providing ear health care and audiology services to adults and over 6,000 Khmer children every year. Last November, I became fast friends with its director, Glyn Vaughan, a British audiologist with such infectious passion for his work. I looked forward to seeing him again and spending time with his talented staff.
The need for hearing health care is significant in Cambodia where meningitis and other diseases that cause hearing loss are still quite common. An estimated 2 million Khmer suffer from deafness and, according to Glyn, over half of these cases could have been prevented. The problem is exacerbated by a shortage of doctors and the decimation of the health care system after years of war and the Khmer Rouge regime.
All Ears Cambodia has clinics in four provinces; its Phnom Penh homebase a calm, feng shui inspired building of teak and tile. Glyn’s eyes always twinkle when he relegates the address’ notorious history. Legend has it that 7C used to be a brothel. One night, a fight broke out and the Khmer Rouge entered this building and killed everyone on site. The place was deemed haunted filled with the ghosts of the victims. When Glyn opened shop and no Khmer would step inside, he was encouraged to host a séance to eliminate the spirits. The spiritual medium confirmed that yes, indeed, there were ghosts, but he could not get them to leave. The good news? The resident ghosts were of the nice sort; they would do no harm or foul and they even had an affinity for Glyn. So now Glyn and his Khmer staff work alongside the kindred spirits of 7C.
Glyn has and continues to personally train his staff in a two-year curriculum covering basic audiology and treatment of ear problems. The topic of this particular day was genetics. I sat in as Vichar, the young Khmer student and Glyn gathered for 3 hours around a clinical table with a laptop and Khmer-English technical dictionary. With Glyn’s patient and thoughtful presentation combined with Vichar’s intense, tireless desire to learn, genetic concepts such as recessive inheritance and alleles were conveyed and understood across language barriers.
The organization has relationships with other NGOs in country and provides hearing health services to orphans, child laborers, victims of domestic violence, as well as those with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and other afflictions. This morning, the place was bustling with activity as children played in and out of doors while adults queued up for appointments. NGO representatives brought children by for ear care services; a boy with a perforated ear drum was evaluated for surgery; and a sick baby clinging to her mother was treated for a middle ear infection. In the midst of it all were the All Ears Khmer staff calmly administering to their patients.
The education support and follow up care for children with hearing loss in Cambodia is minimal. There are just four schools for the deaf that provide both sign language and auditory-verbal instruction. The schools have an uncertain future as the French NGO that runs them is in the midst of turning management responsibility over to the government. Many children with hearing loss attend mainstream schools without the support mechanisms or trained teachers they need to ensure success. On the positive side, the Deaf Development Programme provides services and vocational training to older deaf citizens, and speech pathology is an emerging field.
I was captivated by All Ears’ newest clinic in Battambang. All Ears not only provides ear health care to this poor region, but also education and outreach to children about hygiene, nutrition, safe water, preventive medicine, and other practices that can help reduce disease and the potential for hearing infections. The clinic grows nutritious food on site and practices the principles it teaches in hopes to set an example for the citizens.
Seyha, one of the leaders of All Ears, positively bubbled as she shared their work in Battambang. Her passion driving rapid speech, she remarked to me, “We are working directly with the people …that is what I am most proud of. That we are helping our own people directly improve their lives.”
Yeah, that is what it is all about. Whether its helping communities in Cambodia or training teachers and families in Vietnam, working directly with the people is the most powerful way to make an difference.
One can’t help but get inspired by the compassion and humanity of All Ears Cambodia and I was honored to be a part of it all for a few days. I’m now headed back to Vietnam and am looking forward to getting our Mobile Mission efforts under way.