Friendship across Borders

Singapore International Volunteer (SIV) Pang Nguk Lan’s most rewarding volunteerism experience is an unexpected long distance friendship which transcended cultural barriers.

Khem Chanthorn facilitating a training session at the National Pediatric Hospital of Cambodia

“Witnessing Chanthorn at an international medical conference, sharing his experience of overcoming challenges of working in a healthcare system with limited resources and motivating others – that was the most rewarding point in my volunteerism journey,” said avid Singapore International Volunteer (SIV) Pang Nguk Lan.

55 year old Nguk Lan, who is the Deputy Director of Patient Safety at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and a trained nurse still finds the passion for volunteering after a decade because she “witnessed new miracles with every [volunteering] trip”.

One of her most rewarding experiences, however, was a decade-long friendship she enjoyed with Khem Chanthorn, a Cambodian nurse whom she helped to train.

Khem Chanthorn and Pang Nguk Lan during the APIC pre-conference workshop

An Unlikely Friendship

In 2002, the SIF sent a team of three Singapore doctors and two nurses including Nguk Lan to the National Pediatric Hospital (NPH) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to train their counterparts in Paediatric Intensive Care . The goal was for the team of SIVs to share their expertise with a core team of 20 Cambodian medical workers, who would in turn train other medical workers in Cambodia.

Over three years starting in 2002, the Singapore team visited NPH twice a year for a week time, spending each day in a series of lectures, skill enhancement stations and joint clinical rounds. They gradually introduced changes in areas such as infection control and cleanliness guidelines.

At that time, Chanthorn was working as a nurse at the National Pediatric Hospital of Cambodia. A young man in his twenties, he stood out because of his warmth and overflowing enthusiasm. He not only regarded Nguk Lan as a professional mentor, but also respected her as a beloved elder sister.

“I saw passion and commitment in him, and knew that he could be a change agent. So we identified him as a key person to correspond with (in between our training programmes),” shared Nguk Lan.

Email correspondence wasn’t as simple in Cambodia a decade ago because the network wasn’t well developed and most people had to send emails from Internet cafes. Despite such difficulties, Chanthorn kept up regular email correspondence with Nguk Lan, and over the next decade, a strong friendship was forged.

Khem Chanthorn leading a resuscitation training programme in India

An Important Mentorship

Besides sharing her skills, throughout the years, Nguk Lan provided Chanthorn with endless encouragement. And today, the mentor literally glows with pride when she speaks Chanthorn’s remarkable growth.

“I saw him grow in confidence and expand his skills. Once, when we were doing our clinical rounds, there was a baby in critical condition – he had breathing problems and needed to have an artificial airway inserted. Because there wasn’t a doctor around and Chanthorn was the only experienced person, he intubated the baby. We thought that the baby would not make it, but we were relieved to hear the baby crying again the next day,” she recalled.

Chanthorn involved Nguk Lan in his important career decisions, such as when he decided to move from the National Pediatric Hospital Of Cambodia to the Ministry Of Health (Cambodia). And the two also enjoyed cosy home-cooked meals, met each other’s families and forged an unbreakable bond.

Coming Full Circle

In 2009, Nguk Lan saw an opportunity for her friend to become an international volunteer himself and help others with what he had learnt. As a board member of the World Federation Paediatric Intensive And Critical Care Societies, she recommended him as a speaker for the inaugural Asian Congress Of Pediatric Intensive Care (APIC) in India. In September that year, the organising committee offered him a sponsorship for flight and accommodation to participate in the congress.

As always, Chanthorn accepted this opportunity with great enthusiasm and determination. “He was grateful that in such a short period, he was able to go out of the country, share his skills, and benefit others. Witnessing him as a trainer in the APIC pre-congress resuscitation programme was one of my proudest moments,” said Nguk Lan.

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