Susanne Werner celebrated her 40th year in nursing by heading off on a working vacation to Cambodia. A traveling critical-care nurse, she has worked in the Wood River Valley (at Moritz Hospital and now at St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center) for 32 years. Earlier this year she received the 2007 Carl A. Gray Memorial Award for Nursing Excellence, awarded by the St. Luke's Wood River Foundation.
Werner first went to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 2000 to volunteer at the Angkor Hospital for Children near the Angkor Wat temple.
The hospital was completed in 1999 after photographer Kenro Izu made a series of trips to the Angkor monuments. While there he became aware of the needs in Cambodia, especially the lack of medical care for ill, malnourished and disfigured children. Izu founded Friends Without A Border in 1996 and dedicated himself to building the pediatric hospital. Angkor Hospital for Children has since treated almost 500,000 children. Werner is a member of the medical advisors for the hospital.
She returned to Siem Reap in 2003 for a short visit, and again this year.
"I got a grant from St. Luke's Wood River Humanitarian Fund," she said. "The hospital paid me for the time off, amazingly. I didn't even know it existed."
Werner sent a note to dentists, doctors and others in the valley before leaving on her trip asking for donations of equipment. Subsequently, she was able to stuff various instruments and beanie babies in her luggage.
"Everyone's been really generous," she said with a laugh. "I was surprised they let me through customs."
Traveling with her was Laurie Stuart, a nurse who also worked in the Wood River Valley for 18 years and now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.
"I can't imagine not making a vacation a working one anymore," she said.
Among the other items they bought when they arrived and donated were mosquito nets and mats for families who stay outside the hospital when their children are being cared for inside.
Werner was shocked at the changes in Siem Reap.
"Because of Angkor Wat it has turned into a little tourist town," she said. "But a block removed from the high-rise hotels, Cambodians are living in shacks. It's still the poorest county in the whole country, which is saying a lot. It's pretty poor. The contrast has gotten wider."
But Werner was gratified to see changes at the hospital.
"It's amazing to see the progress," she said. "They finally have a big commercial washing machine. The nurses I was teaching in 2003 are now managers. They've made great strides. One of the indicators is that it's the only hospital in the whole country with ventilators. Now they have an intensive-care unit with four beds and two ventilators. They got a few grants and it has become a rotation hospital for pediatric training and anesthesiology. They were turfing through a lot of students. That's what I was trying to help with."
The hospital has 30 to 40 beds, including a 26-bed main ward. There is a kitchen built by a Japanese organization where the mothers are taught nutrition and cooking using produce grown in the hospital's garden.
When Werner arrived, it was the tail end of the worst Dengue fever season Cambodia has had for 20 years, she said.
"For three to four months there are something like 700 kids treated a day. Families are just living on the grounds in a kind of tent city."
Dengue fever is carried by mosquitoes. The second time a child contracts the fever, which is similar to malaria, the odds for survival are worse.
On their first day in Cambodia, Stuart and Werner went on home visits and saw people with AIDS.
"Thanks to the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative, programs for them now exist," she said.
With a donation given to her of $300, the hospital was able to pay for two full surgeries done by a visiting German doctor, and hospitalization for cleft palates and lips.
"We take so much for granted," Werner said.
On an excursion to Laos, Werner picked up seeds at a market and gave them to a doctor to give away.
"These people live in one-room, palm-frond, shacks," Werner said. "Life is lived outside and that has stayed the same whether there are tourists or not. The people are just glorious. They have nothing and expect nothing. They want what we all want—for our children to survive."
For more information on Friends Without A Border, visit fwab.org.