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    Dr. Tho Vantha
    By Dr. Kee Park
    Consultant in Neurosurgery, Cambodia Neurosurgical Support Project Team

    From the break of dawn, adolescent Kop-Roly would break the tide with his father and their fishing boat, putting off into the Pacific end. As the second eldest of six children in the rural Kep province, Roly would spend the first half of the day fishing with his father to sustain their impecunious family, and the latter half at his distant secondary school. His elder sister dropped out of primary school to help care for her five younger siblings because an education was not heeded as practical by the village or family. Studying for Roly, however, was more than a life of drudgery: studying became a purposeful passion.

    Despite his humble background, Roly excelled in his academics and was the only recipient of a “B” in his entire province. To reward students’ excellence and accomplishments in secondary school, the Cambodian government or various universities impartially distribute scholarships to students that achieve an overall “A”, “B”, or “C.” In the spring of 2004, Roly graduated from high school and ventured to pursue a higher education with the encouragement of his teachers. Only with the clothes on his back, Roly traveled to Phnom Penh. “I did not know have a single friend, nor did I know anyone there,” stated Roly. An altruistic stranger aided him in applying to the eight-year medical program at University of Health Science, and it was to his surprise that he received a phone call from UHS, granting him admission. Despite the valuable scholarship that paid for his university fee, the first two years of medical school had Roly sequestered in a pagoda, each day barely scrapping by. Once again, part-time jobs supported him as he worked as a night waiter for a restaurant, a Biology teacher assistant for medical students, a newspaper deliverer, and a translator for an NGO that reached out to villages.

    As a child, it was inconceivable to Roly that he would ever pursue neurosurgery as a career. This was partly due to the fact that his village never had a doctor, nurse, or even mid-wife. At his final year of high school, Roly aspired to help the Khmer people, his village, and his family. Why neurosurgery? First, Cambodia has a deficiency in the number of neurosurgeons, despite the tremendous demand. “Most patients cannot afford to travel to Vietnam or Thailand to receive treatment,” said Roly. Second, his last rotation as a medical student was in the neurosurgery department for six months, which greatly intrigued and enthralled him. Engaging and interacting patients in rounds combined with the innovations of surgery brought joy to Roly. Third, the highly competitive National Exam for Specialization only permits the top three medical students to advance to specialize in neurosurgery. Along with two other residents, Roly was admitted into this specialized program.

    Now, as a 27-year old resident, Roly still finds the financial costs to be a significant hurdle to achieving his dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon. Roly has asked the chief of the department of neurosurgery to stay in a single shabby room at the hospital. The 4-year residency program requires its participants to pay an annual fee of $1500, a tremendous sum for the Khmer people. The average salary for a full-time worker would be as low as $80 per month. Unfortunately, the government scholarship does not cover this annual resident fee. For Roly, the next step proved impossible until he met Dr. Kee Park, a Korean-American neurosurgeon at a World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies conference in January 2013. Subsequently, Dr. Park and his family moved to Phnom Penh in the fall of 2013 to help teach 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. His younger brother has a severe case of epilepsy, and Roly must provide for the daily medications.

    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.


    July 2024