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A Mission of Mercy : Costa Mesa Woman Finds Fulfillment at Red Cross Hospital in Cambodia


Nadine Selden, 44, studied journalism and business and worked in market research. So what is she doing in the Cambodian countryside at a rustic, make-do American Red Cross hospital?

Helping to run it, and having the time of her life.

"People think we are sacrificing something to come here, but you get so much more. It's a gift to come to a place like this," she said.

"If I worked 24 hours a day and was the greatest Red Cross worker that was ever known, I would still get far more back than I could ever give."

Kompong Speu province is, she concedes, a long way from her onetime home in Costa Mesa. She left behind a grown son and daughter and an ex-husband in February when she signed up to be field administrator at Kompong Speu Provincial Hospital, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"I had the same feeling the day my husband proposed to me: This would be a crossroads in my life," Selden said.

Now she spends her days in a converted Buddhist monastery, a group of wooden buildings huddled in the impoverished farmlands 50 miles southwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.

There are no telephones, no air conditioning and only unreliable electricity. Pigs and cows wander the hospital grounds. Meals are cooked outside under a tree by patients' families.

The 70 or so patients lie on woven mats supported by wooden platforms. Their medical charts are written on discarded newspaper. Instruments are sterilized in a charcoal-heated autoclave.

"Things seem so overwhelming here, but people are somehow getting things done," Selden said. "The (24-member) Cambodian (staff) at the hospital seem to have no materials or resources, but they still provide care."

Selden's job is to keep the resources coming. The American Red Cross provides medicine, surgical supplies and artificial limbs, plus medical training. The World Food Program donates rice. Church World Services provides blankets and mosquito nets, and a United Nations worker has supplied a quantity of teddy bears.

These forces are marshaled against tuberculosis, malaria, dengue fever and the injuries from land mines and traffic accidents.

Selden, ostensibly an administrator, often finds herself in the wards helping patients.

A young mother complained that she could produce no milk for her week-old son. Selden hunted up a midwife, and together they demonstrated how to leach the nutrients from rice into a palatable milky liquid.

An old man withering away from tuberculosis and a young woman whose son is undergoing surgery for two clubfeet were on Selden's self-appointed rounds.

"I gave blood for the first time," Selden said. "I am B-positive and a patient came in who needed B-positive blood, so I volunteered. It went directly from me, into the bag, into the patient. There are no lab tests or anything.

"The Western doctors and the Khmer doctors tell me that the diagnostic skills of a doctor working in a place like this have to be much sharper, because they don't have lab tests and instruments that we have in Western countries. All they have is the stethoscope, the pulse rate, the look and the understanding."

By the time a patient comes to the hospital, the condition usually is in its advanced stages, she said. Cambodians typically try folk healers first and come to the hospital as a last resort.

Even so, parts of the hospital routine have become very popular among Cambodians, Selden said. They "really like shots and IVs," and X-rays have become so popular, "I have begun to suspect that the patients think the X-ray itself is curative."

Selden's attachment to Cambodia began when she was doing market research in Long Beach, she said.

She encountered Cambodians in that work, and "each of them had some heroic story of survival. More than survival, they actually have built lives for themselves in the States. Those are the people who have impressed me. There is something in their souls. It grabs you.

"My brother thought I was going through a mid-life crisis. If that is what it is, I've been going through it for six or seven years."

Selden recently got her master's degree in medical anthropology at UC Irvine. She then served on the board of the United Cambodian Community in Long Beach and volunteered as a research consultant for American Red Cross Cambodian services.

She studied the people's history and language and slowly realized that "my acquaintances and friends just changed. I wanted to work here."

Cambodian elections in May caused considerable tension at the hospital, Selden said.

The Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian faction reputed to have killed more than 1 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, had pledged to disrupt the elections and had a strong presence in Kompong Speu Province.

Selden said there was nothing to do but take precautions and continue on. It wasn't new to her, she said. "I grew up in New York and have lived in Los Angeles. . . . I think L.A. and Long Beach during the riots were more tense than it is here normally."

The elections went smoothly, and a new constitution and government are in store.

"There is a visible mood change among the Khmer staff at the hospital," Selden said. "People are very hopeful. It's the rebirth of a nation.

"I don't think you can ever look at the world the same way after being here."

Selden plans to renew her American Red Cross contract this month, but she has told relatives that she may stay for a couple of more years. Her children are planning to visit her this year.

Selden's mother, Virginia St. Paul of Costa Mesa, said her daughter returned stateside for a visit this spring and it was clear that she was enjoying the Cambodian experience.

"She looked like a different person," St. Paul said, "alive, excited and happy."

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