When Mam Bunsocheat was a general surgeon at Calmette Hospital, his friend’s newlywed wife died of a treatable heart condition.
Had there been any heart specialists in Cambodia, Bunsocheat believes she may have lived.
“Since that time , I promised myself that if I had a chance, I would study heart surgery,” Bunsocheat says.
Today, Bunsocheat, 35, is Cambodia’s only qualified heart surgeon, performing an average of two life-saving operations per day at the Phnom Penh Cardiology Center.
The hard-working Bunsocheat wears his surgery scrubs – white clothes, cap and mask – to a recent interview with the Post. He hurries into the cardiology center’s waiting room, stripping latex gloves from his hands.
“I am sorry for being late,” he says, smiling warmly. “Today, I’ve been a bit busy operating on patients and I just finished one now.”
Since finishing advanced studies in France and returning to Cambodia in 2002, Bunsocheat has completed around 1,700 heart operations – mostly repairing valve malfunctions and genetic cardiac defects.
But it’s been a long haul to get to this position.
Though Bunsocheat originally wanted to study electronics, Cambodian universities offered few courses in the discipline, so he followed his father into medicine. (Mam Bunheng was a gynecologist and obstetrician before taking his current post as secretary of state at the Ministry of Health.)
After graduating from the Faculty of Medicine in 1994, Bunsocheat continued his studies in hemodialysis – the cleaning of blood – for six months in China. With these skills in hand, he began work at Calmette Hospital as a general surgeon and blood specialist.
During this time, the death of his friend’s wife prompted Bunsocheat to study for another three years at the Faculty of Medicine, enhancing his medical skills and studying in French.
In 2000, he was one of 15 students to pass an examination allowing him to choose a specialty two-year course in France: Bunsocheat picked heart and blood vessel surgery.
“I started from scratch,” he says. “I tried my best to study hard to catch up with other foreign students.”
Bunsocheat did more than survive the steep learning curve – he was offered a lucrative position in France as a cardiovascular surgeon.
But he turned down the job, returning home to repair the blood vessels and hearts of his countrymen.
“If I worked in France, it would do nothing to help Cambodia,” he said.
Though at first Bunsocheat struggled to properly equip the heart center’s operating room, he says today it’s easier to find specialized materials.
“But Cambodia still lacks heart surgeons. So far I’m the only Cambodian who can perform heart operations for patients,” he said. “There should be heart surgeons in every province and city center to serve the people and be like HIV/AIDS health workers.”
Another Khmer heart surgeon will finish his studies in France this year, but Bunsocheat doesn’t know whether he will return to Cambodia. Until then, Bun-socheat will continue to shoulder the workload of Cambodia’s increasing heart problems.
The World Health Organization reported 7,635 fatalities from heart disease in 2002, easily exceeding the deaths caused by strokes. While common factors such as smoking, lack of exercise and high-cholesterol diets are contributing to heart complaints among wealthier Cambodians, a condition known as rheumatic heart disease is singling out those with little access to medical treatment and sanitation.
Also known as the “sickness of the poor”, rheumatic heart disease is caused by inadequately treated throat infections and accounts for about half of all cases at the center.
Heart surgery is an expensive business, with a single artificial valve costing $1,500 to import from the United States. Complicated operations can cost up to $3,000.
But there is hope for poor patients. Organizations such as the Cambodian Medical Foundation and La Chaine de l’Espoir help to cover the costs of disadvantaged clients.
The Phnom Penh Cardiology Center was set up in 2001 and now conducts around 20,000 consultations and around 1,000 open-heart surgeries each year.
Bunsocheat often works alongside visiting French doctors at the heart center, sharing knowledge and experience. There are 14 members on his surgery team, including anesthesiologists and specialists in artificial heart parts. A simple operation might take only 30 minutes, but sometimes marathon sessions occur, requiring incredible stamina and concentration.
“Sometimes he stands and operates on a patient until 12 at night,” says Meas Saran, director of the Intensive Care Unit at the Phnom Penh Cardiology Center. “He is the best doctor that I have ever met.”
Saran recalls an 11-hour operation undertaken by Bunso-cheat and his team to fix a genetic problem in a 12-year-old child, who is still alive and living in Takeo province. Bunsocheat’s colleagues describe him as kind and patient, adding that this isn’t always the way with doctors.
But for Cambodia’s one and only homegrown heart surgeon, it’s all in a day’s work.
“Now, after many years of surgery experiences, it’s easier for me to operate on heart patients,” he said. “I’m just happy to help Cambodian people.”