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Cambodian Nurse-Midwife Turns COVID-19 Front Line Medical Worker

Chanthy Ratha joins other medical frontline workers in Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth Doctor Association to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)
Chanthy Ratha joins other medical frontline workers in Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth Doctor Association to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)

Chanthy Ratha was at her home in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district when she received a phone call last June. She put down the phone, quickly wore her medical uniform, picked up her bag, and headed straight to the National Institute of Public Health.

At 7 p.m., Chanthy Ratha and other medical volunteers left for the Phnom Penh International Airport to process incoming passengers. She boarded a van filled to the brim with personal protective equipment, disinfectants, medical forms, snacks, coffee, and tea – anything they would need that night – and set off.

After conducting dozens of tests and medical interviews that night, she returned home at 2 a.m. This was not her first mission, but it was a grueling one for the then-recent graduate.

“As medical workers, we have to always standby and stay alerted for the emergency mission,” she said.

Chanthy Ratha graduated from university as a nurse-midwife last year and, after assessing her options, decided to join the Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth Doctor Association to help tackle the growing threat from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since January 2020, Cambodia has reported more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases, more than 600 of those have come in the last three weeks, as the country struggles to control the latest community transmission incident.

Chanthy Ratha has been working through the highs and lows of Cambodia’s attempts to keep the novel coronavirus at bay. Despite the risks, she wants to be on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response to protect her family and fellow citizens.

“Most of the time, everyone steps back in such a situation. What if I also step back? What if the outbreak is as big as what happened in China, who would be responsible then?” she said.

“Then, the victims are not just our Cambodian people, but also my own family.”

VOA Khmer contacted several other medical volunteers to speak about their experiences but they said they were not permitted to speak to the media or were on a mission.

The medical volunteer said she received some intensive training on how to deal with people she was testing, how to safely administer the test and to conduct case interviews to accurately pinpoint and assist contact tracing.

The mission requires “high attention” and “extreme caution,” Chanthy Ratha said, and to make sure that volunteers were safe so they would not transmit the virus to other team members, families, or people around them.

“I always have alcohol spray and hand sanitizer and wear a mask. Every time I go on a mission, I tie my hair up, wear long socks, long pants, and closed-toe shoes,” she said. “Then I put on the PPE gear – an isolation gown, N95 masks, face shields, and gloves.”

“When the mission is finished and after taking off the protective gear, we spray alcohol from head to toe. When I get home, I wash my clothes, take a shower and wash my hair.”

Dr. Chhea Chhorvann, director of the National Institute of Public Health, said volunteer medical workers were critical to certain areas of the COVID-19 fight, especially in contact tracing.

He said that while the research and public health teams were occupied with laboratory work or treatment of patients, the volunteers were taking the lead in identifying sources of the virus and contacting potential contacts.

"They work without proper time and schedule. When there is a suspicious case, they are always there right away,” he said, “Their work is critical and urgent.”

Chanthy Ratha grew up in Battambang province’s Ra village and left in 2014 to attend university. Her family has been supportive of her career choices and proud of her decision to work with the volunteer group.

“My father is happy for his daughter who dares to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. He never complains or restricts me for late-night missions,” she said.

“My parents are happy that their daughter is brave and courageous.”