Rita Harrison - Medicine & Healthcare, Occupational Therapy in Cambodia
Part of the reason why I decided to study Occupational Therapy (OT) was that I knew it was a profession I could take anywhere in the world. Since graduating, I have been fortunate to work in an area that I am passionate about - working with children with disabilities - but still I always thought about what drove me to study the profession in the first place and so I decided to take the challenge; to take my skills somewhere else in the world.
After some research, I found out about Projects Abroad and discovered the need for OT in Cambodia. Next thing I knew, my physical therapist friend, Jessica Bentley, and her school teacher friend, Shannon Braithwaite, also wanted to join me on the adventure. We sent in our applications and a couple of months later landed in Phnom Penh.
Arrival in Cambodia
We arrived in chaotic Cambodia and like any other traveler arriving in the country; we were confused, exhausted, overwhelmed, but at the same time, excited. It was hard not to get caught up in the electricity of Phnom Penh and be excited about what the city would bring. As soon as our feet hit the hot pavement outside the airport, our senses were ignited as the city took its hold and dragged us in. Chammy stood waiting for us outside the airport, holding his Projects Abroad sign in his hands and his welcome across his face. It was such a relief to have him there. Everyone is welcoming in Cambodia in a really genuine and infectious way. It is hard to not fall in love with the people and their beautiful country.
We spent one month in Phnom Penh working at the National Borei for Infants and Children (NBIC). The NBIC is a center for abandoned disabled children; some of the children arrive there straight from the hospital after they are born, whilst others come later as their needs take toil on their families and they unfortunately have to find an alternative way for their child to be cared for. The center has over 100 children, all with varying disabilities and levels of abilities. Children are cared for all day and night by dedicated workers. There is also a school attached to NBIC where children from the center - as well as disabled children from the community - can learn skills for independent living.
Although Jessica, Shannon and I had experience working with children with disabilities back home in Australia, we still sometimes felt completely lost at NBIC. We were sometimes unsure where to start or what to do next. There was so much we wanted to do, but we knew we could not do everything. The living conditions at the center and limited resources available were something we had to adjust to quickly. The children’s disabilities were severe – many were malnourished and very unwell.
Sometimes we would leave the center at the end of the day feeling deflated and exhausted. However, each morning we would wake up thinking of the children and would want to go back to be with them again. We spent our days at NBIC trying to do as much as we could in the time we had. We fixed wheelchairs, taught children to walk, went to orthotic appointments, worked on building their self-feeding skills, and played with them. Most of all, we tried to advocate for the children. We tried to give the children a voice when they could not speak and we tried to listen when no one could hear them.
We worked alongside carers, modeling ways to better position the children or teaching them about ways to engage the children. It was amazing to watch our relationships grow with the children and the staff. We became part of the routine and we saw some amazing progress in such a short amount of time. Children who when we arrived could not sit still or play with toys, by the end of the month were making friends with the other children and playing games together.
As an Occupational Therapist in a completely foreign environment, I would find myself thinking about what the word ‘occupation’ meant for the children at the center. I questioned what my role meant in such an environment and quite often would come to the same conclusion - to advocate and support the children in doing whatever they wanted or needed to do.
For some, it meant building their social and communication skills so that they could play and engage with those around them. For others, I worked on developing their fine motor skills through play so that would be able to attend school and learn a trade. For almost all of the children, I became their friend; held their hand when they needed to go for a walk, gave them a hug when they needed to cry, and provided them with encouragement and praise in everything they tried.
Traveling around Cambodia
My Projects Abroad experience in Cambodia was not all about work at NBIC. During weekends I escaped the city, jumped on a bus and took long bumpy journeys out into the provinces. Since I only had a month in the country, I tried to make the most of weekends to meet locals, see the sights, and soak up as much of the country as I could. I was fortunate enough to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, ride along the bamboo train in Battambang and relax on a deserted beach at Rabbit Island. Oh and of course, ate as much Fish Amok as I could.
At home in Australia, I’m back at work with a whole new perspective on what I do and a new appreciation for what we have, but not a day has passed where I don’t stop and think about Cambodia – the people I met, the places I visited, and the amazing experiences I had. I cannot wait to go back.