Notes From The Field by Safe Haven Nurse Jess Whitney

Posted on February 10, 2013

It is Sunday morning in Siem Reap, and I know that in 12 hours or so, Heather will arrive from Phnom Penh. We have two busy weeks to look forward to – there are new Safe Haven kids for Heather to meet, new supplies to be unpacked and stored, new staff to be introduced, and who knows what sorts of errands and other running around to do. Heather hasn’t been in Siem Reap for many months, and there is so much to catch up about – despite the multiple emails every week, some things are best discussed and explored face-to-face.

There are 9 or 10 new children and families for Heather to meet. We now serve a handful of younger children, giving us the opportunity to provide earlier intervention and preventive services. The original idea for Safe Haven was to build a school for children with disabilities, so the target age was 4-16 years. As Safe Haven has evolved and become what it is now, a medical outreach program, we have more actively sought and included younger children, and we now have two toddlers who are relatively intensive in their needs. This is where my experience back in Vermont is most useful – for 20+ years I was a visiting nurse for families with young children, and this is what I know how to do best. On the other hand, despite whatever challenges those families in Vermont had, there are challenges here I could never have imagined. Besides the obvious language barrier (thank goodness for excellent translators!) and cultural differences, I have never seen a child with untreated hydrocephalus before, let alone developed a care plan for such a child. Some solid medical knowledge and a bit of creativity can go a long way, but there is still so much I am learning.

I am so fortunate to have such wonderful resources available, despite the general scarcity of such in Cambodia. Safe Haven has a Khmer physical therapist with many years of experience working at Handicap International. We have just welcomed a volunteer occupational therapist who is from the UK but has several years experience living in Cambodia and working with children with disabilities. We have speech language therapists who come from New York 2-3 times per year to assess children, consult and train us. I have three doctor friends, one of whom lives here and two who visit once or twice a year, who are available as needed to offer advice or direction via email or in person.

And we have Heather, who made this whole thing happen. Without Heather’s original vision, Safe Haven wouldn’t exist. Without Heather’s funding, Safe Haven wouldn’t exist. And without Safe Haven, more than 50 kids and families whose lives have been touched and improved by intervention would potentially be suffering at home without medications, without therapy, without awareness that improvement was even possible. Those who have donated money or vitamins or medical supplies or therapy equipment have also made this happen. Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this so far – everything you contribute is deeply appreciated and lovingly put to good use – and my deep gratitude to Heather for creating something from nothing.

My hope is that Safe Haven will continue to grow, slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. I hope we can water and feed and nurture the seed that Heather planted and watch it become a strong and sturdy tree creating shade and a safe haven for those who need it. Things grow quickly here in this climate – with the right conditions, it shouldn’t take that long.