[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 13 of the series.]


When we turned into the hospital I had an extraordinarily vivid recollection of visits to upcountry Cambodian hospitals in Jan 1993. They were nothing more than jumbles of dilapidated shacks; the wards were crammed with people; the stench was unbelievable. They were like something from Inferno.

To my astonishment, the Kratie hospital was freshly painted, as bright as a new coin. It’s a  cheerful provincial hospital. Compared to its Indian counterparts it looks almost First world.

The interior didn’t quite match the exterior, but it was still a great improvement on the rural hospitals of Cambodia in 1993. Patients were squirming on rather dirty-looking beds, with their families camped around them. There was only one nurse on duty and she seemed a little flustered and uncertain. She led us into an emergency ward and had a look at Isabel’s wounds. Where was the doctor? The wound on Isabel’s wrist definitely needed stitches and I couldn’t see that this nurse would be able to do the job. The doctor was away at a wedding, the nurse said. What about the other doctors? They were all at the wedding. Could they be called? The nurse wasn’t sure; she disappeared for a bit. In the meanwhile Isabel sat on the operating table, holding her wrist, obviously in great pain. Yet she was completely composed, smiling. The entire ward had crowded around the door to watch, and Isabel had a smile for everyone.

We called an American vet who lives here in Kratie. He was clearly not interested in getting involved. ‘Oh just get some stitches and get outta there.’ The problem was that there was no one to do the stitching. I told him that we were kinda hoping that he’d do it. ‘I don’t work on humans; just haven’t worked on humans much; she’ll be fine there. They’ll stitch her up.’

Various nurses wandered in and out offering bits of advice. One said that dog-inflicted wounds couldn’t be stitched; another said that the doctors weren’t going to leave the wedding to do the stitches… There was no one to translate and we couldn’t make ourselves understood. Then, at last, one of Isabel’s Cambodian colleagues arrived. Suddenly, with the circuitry of language in place, things began to move. A nurse practitioner appeared and was attested to be an expert at stitching; even the doctors left the stitching to her we were told.

Isabel was given some local anesthetic and then the nurse took out an evil-looking curved needle and some thick black gut. She thrust the needle into Isabel’s wrist as if she were trying to hook a fish – jabbing, pushing, grunting. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick, but Isabel sat through it without any fuss. Her teeth was clenched and she was muttering under her breath, but her composure remained intact through all of it. After the stitching was over she got up and walked out and even arranged a payment for nurses ($20). I thought of George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’.

Then we went looking for a tetanus shot: this we were told, had to be administered by a private doctor. At this point, we weren’t concerned about rabies shots at all – because Isabel had been inoculated against rabies six years ago, when she was working with bats in New Zealand. The dog had also been inoculated against rabies, so that seemed to be taken care of. So it was tetanus that was the immediate concern when we looking for the private doctor’s home. Alas, he too was away at the wedding. We left a message with his family and came back to the house.


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