Reunion of Roses in Phnom Penh

They arrived with a sense of adventure and high purpose, wanting to explore new territory and make a difference with their expertise. Twenty years later they returned, with a sense of awe for what had been achieved. 

Rose Charities’ volunteer trustees met recently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the new Rose Eye Centre they helped establish nearly 20 years ago, to celebrate the Centre’s achievements one last time.

The Centre is led by ophthalmologist Dr Hang Vra, a Cambodian whose remarkable tatters-to-triumph story is almost mythic, and his Ukrainian-born wife Natalia, who came with her new husband as a young nurse and is now a fully-qualified ophthalmologist and Cambodian citizen. They juggled the never ending need to see patients while warmly welcoming the team who’d gathered for this auspicious reunion. The team included:

  • Dr Will Grut from Vancouver, who refuses to be called the founder of Rose Charities International (which now operates in 14 countries, providing support for those in need) so I will call him First Rose;
  • Dr Basant Sharma from Lumbini, Nepal;
  • John Veale, an optometrist from Christchurch, who first visited the struggling eye clinic in 2002 after it had suffered a malicious looting, and resolved to ramp up support from his professional Kiwi mates;
  • Mike Webber, MNZM, a retired optometrist from Whanganui who responded to “Vealy’s call” and has been a stalwart mover and shaker for the clinic ever since. This was Mike’s fourteenth visit, many of them to take more than $300,000 worth of high-quality equipment donated from New Zealand or to introduce Kiwi ophthalmologists who could help provide specific professional development for Vra and Natalia

Last October’s reunion was a celebratory affair. The stories, the laughter, the tears, the pride - and the whisky - flowed.

Through the relentless study, incredible hard work and visionary management of the complexities of Cambodian bureaucracy and politics, and the support of the Roses, Vra and Natalia’s Rose Eye Centre is now rated as one of the top two in the country. More than 500,000 people, including more than 48,000 who had cataract surgery, have been treated at the Centre since it was set up nearly two decades ago. This includes a large proportion of some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, many diagnosed at rural eye camps and taken to the Centre by a truck donated from New Zealand.

This visit for me came eight years after my first and the change from the old clinic to the new is staggering. In 2010, Vra’s clinic wishlist included a broom cupboard, so blind patients wouldn’t fall over mops and buckets, and swinging doors into the operating space (one could hardly call it a “theatre”) so sterile hands did not have to touch door handles. The needs were that basic. Today, the new clinic has well-kitted-out surgical theatres and all the latest equipment, so I wouldn’t hesitate to ask Vra to mend my aging eyes when the time comes.

I love the stories of the clinic’s early days, many almost unbelievable. One of my favourites harks back to 1998 when Will and Basant were doing surgery in a rudimentary rural hut. Down came the rain and Will thought, “well, that’s the end of that”. Not so Basant and his colleague from Nepal. A motorcycle was spotted, petrol siphoned out with a syringe and injected into a lump of polyfoam up on the thatched roof. The stuff swelled up in a putty-like mess, the raindrops stopped falling and surgery continued!

“Coming from the first world, I would have given up long before,” Will reminisces. “But the ingenious Nepalis – no way. I learnt a big lesson in expectations and adapting to local conditions then.

“Without doubt, this Cambodian Rose Eye Centre is one of the most successful aid projects I have ever come across. The key is that it is all in the hands of local people, with Rose Charities’ input empowering them. We will always remain supportive. But our job is done. That makes my heart sing.”

For more about Rose Charities NZ’s work visit, www.rose-charities.org.

Trish Gribben was chair of Rose Charities NZ from 2004 to 2017. An author, former editor, journalist and TV producer, she joined the Roses in Phnom Penh with current Rose NZ chair Nicola Thomas.

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