Monday, February 18, 2013

Chinese New Year

Between the start of the Chinese New Year and the location of my new job near the bustling market where no tourists go,  I’ve been seeing a lot of chicken and ducks hanging from the back of motorbikes. One morning I pulled up alongside an older couple from the provinces who looked like they were bringing their poultry harvest to market.   
The man drove, the woman wore a kroma around her head and the chickens and ducks looked as they had just been sprayed down with water as they arrived into the city.  The ducks dibbled at the drops of water that ran down around their bills as they were tucked in to the topside of the bike rack face up and looking around. The chickens were on “their last legs”, hanging near death from the periphery.   As the traffic light changed and this cultural conglomeration headed on their way to Oressei Market for their imminent demise, I thought about the Chinese New Year and the beginning that comes with a new full time job.

Last week after I accepted the job at Shihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE, I took an early morning Saturday bike ride through the streets of Phnom Penh.  A group of 12 dancers, 6 of them balanced on their friend’s shoulders and wearing the long, red and gold headdresses performed on the street below a balcony of onlookers. Small fires were burning along the sidewalks, with charred flitters of fake money littered around the distinct smell of paper fires.   The weekend felt precious as I prepared for returning to the daily work life.  I was going back into a hospital environment, a place where I’ve had mixed experiences.

I was hospitalized for a month when I was seven years old, first while being newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and then, shortly after I was stabilized, readmitted with a third degree burn on my right wrist. I tried to help in the kitchen, but the well-intended deed that went seriously wrong.  There was cold water from the faucet, a moaning ride to the Emergency Department in the back seat of the station wage.  Then,  skin grafts, everyone’s uncertainty about the healing process with newly diagnosed diabetes and the long lonely nights of isolation from the family, looking out the window to the lights of the city below, beeping lights and the ghostly presence of nurses as they drifted silently through the hallways.   Many years later, I was invited into the other side when I worked in hospital administration at Providence Health and Services Alaska. In the carpeted hallways rife with power dynamics, competing agendas, and bloated expectations, I was summarily ejected after only nine months.  That action launched the genesis of this new part of my life.

The job title is Proposal Developer, which I suspect will be a combination of writer, strategist, accountant and negotiator.  It’s a a great learning opportunity and a chance to deliver my skills directly to community development on a very fundamental level.   The patients at the Center of HOPE are frequently rural people, often traveling in from outlying provinces for care when they are very sick.  The marketing materials refer mention that Cambodians call The Center of HOPE the “Angel Hospital”, because people will be treated regardless of their ability to pay.   The hospital has a dual mission of training medical professionals and delivering care to all, free of charge.

Sihanoulk Hospital Center of Hope
Sihanoulk Hospital Center of Hope
There is a lot to be done here and I know I will make a difference.  In 1996 The Center of HOPE was taken on as a project by HOPE worldwide, a group that has foundations in the Church of Christ. The then-king Norodom Sihanouk (who died recently) gave the Hope Worldwide the building.    The Center of Hope has undergone some profound changes in the past two years including multiple transitions in executive leadership and the unfortunate termination of a relationship with a significant major donor.  There are only a few expatriate staff, nearly all centered in the administration, and a legion of foreign volunteers that rotate through the hospital on short-term assignments to provide training and support for the Cambodian doctors.   I am surrounded by young Cambodians and long-time staff who are working hard to advance the mission and provide caring, compassionate care to all people who show up each morning at dawn to wait for triage and treatment. 

I went in for a massage on Friday evening.  I’ve learned to call and request a few of my favorite massussses who work at the Seeing Hands Massage Center.  The program got started as a shiatsu/acupressure training program for blind people to generate their own income.   Sopheak was troubled when she first ran her hands over my beleaguered shoulders, “You are so strong.”  She tut-tutted and tsk-tsked her way through the grinding motion of her elbow into the rock hard cement of my left shoulders and worked her way through the unfortunate manifestation of the week’s steep learning curve.  However, at the end, I was freed.   I stopped by the weekend market for some take-away dinner and asked the tuk tuk guy to stop by the bookstore for my usual Friday evening newspaper indulgence.  The traffic was light, it was a cooler evening and the world felt peaceful as we puttered through the city and slowed as we reached the bookstore.

Then I felt something cool and wet on my left arm.   The tree frog had alighted just above my elbow.  I could see his panicked breathing in the glow of the streetlights and took a moment to marvel at this unexpected visitor.   The driver stopped in the middle of the lane when he heard me giggle, gently reached onto my arm and tossed the frog into the street before I could protest.  I looked on in an instant of horror as the passing motorcycle missed the tiny creature, and then the frog took a giant leap onto the relative safety of the sidewalk and the big tree nearby. 

Throughout my time here in Cambodia, I’ve had happenstance encounters. The special moments that stun us out of a daily routine.   The shopping quest that reveals it’s bounty in a decision to turn into an alley or ascend a staircase.  The friendship that’s formed by deciding to eat at the food cart across the street instead of the foreigner coffee shop down the road and the journeys that are launched with a single, reverberant, decisive “YES!.”    I can’t wait to find out what happens next.