The sordid streets of Phnom Penh found Tho-Vantha gathering recyclable coke bottles amongst the malodorous garbage littering the sidewalk. Each glass bottle could be potentially sold for a few cents, and every few cents could potentially help his destitute family. “I would collect bottles on the streets,” said Vantha, “to put my younger siblings through school.” At the age of eleven, Vantha’s father abandoned his family to marry another family, leaving Vantha to care for his mother, younger brother, and sister. The secondary schools in Phnom Penh require its students to pay an annual school fee, but a compassionate mathematics teacher and an invaluable scholarship from Japan helped pay for his first few years. Faced with the most austere conditions and unable to adequately provide, Vantha’s mother gave up her three children to a French orphanage in 2002. It was here that Vantha learned the English language. Despite a series of misfortunes, Vantha persevered because of his steadfast love for his family and an ambition to succeed. Vantha continued his education at this high school, excelling in his studies and was accepted into the University of Health Sciences.
The French orphanage pledged a scholarship for his university fee and living expenses up to his sixth year of medical school. Upon his sixth year of medical school, he took the National Exam for Specialization, hoping to enter a rigorous program to become a neurosurgeon. Only Vantha and one other student were accepted into the neurosurgery residency program. The residency program in Phnom Penh requires its students to pay a university and hospital fee of $1500 annually. Vantha secured a part-time job as a doctor assistant at the cardiovascular department, preparing statistics of pre-operation and post-operation students and the associated success rates. For the past two months of residency, Vantha has received a scholarship of $200 per month from the Cambodian Neurosurgery Resident Scholarship program, established by Dr. Kee Park through the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies Foundation. Dr. Park and his family moved to Phnom Penh in the fall of 2013 to help teach and advance neurosurgery. Upon observing and understanding the financial circumstances of the residents, Dr. Park appealed to the WFNS Foundation to establish a scholarship program, which was granted for two residents, each receiving $200 per month. Of the $200 monthly payment, $125 is devoted to paying the university fee, leaving only $75 to live on food, living expenses, textbooks, and family. This can be translated to living on a little over $2 per day. “My younger brother just finished his first year of law school, and I am trying to pay everything for him,” explained Vantha.
Upon being asked why he pursued degrees in medicine and neurosurgery, Vantha stated that it is his desire to know how to treat family members or friends and where to send them to receive quality treatment. “I want to make them smile,” said Vantha with a grin. The earnings from this career can pay for his nineteen year-old brother’s law school. Neurosurgery is also a lacking department in Cambodia, with only a few neurosurgeons in Phnom Penh. Vantha hopes to aid in developing this field. Many patients admitted to the hospital suffer from head or spine trauma, whether it is through motorcycle accidents, falls from trains or buildings, or violence. Vantha hopes to work in Phnom Penh, where there is adequate resources and equipment, and then move to the provinces to help the less-fortunate Khmer people.
At the age of twenty-six, Vantha is now a first-year resident, aspiring to be a neurosurgeon. Vantha frequents his past orphanage, volunteering to help the children and raise financial support. When asked why he sacrifices valuable time and energy for this orphanage, Vantha responded, “I want to give back to the community that offered so much to me before.”
The call for further financial assistance is blaring and audible. Additional aid is required to support and sustain neurosurgery residents. Currently, funding from the WFNS Foundation’s Cambodia Neurosurgery Resident Scholarship Program is only provided for two residents for one year. As the years progress, it is our desire to see more residents included in the scholarship program, and for an extended period of time. The bright future of Cambodia must not be living under $3 per day.
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