Those who believe in curses say they must afflict gym

The Place

My gym, which is situated in a prime location in a prime neighborhood of Phnom Penh.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then perhaps you remember the story of a trainer at my gym who was in serious condition after an accident on her motorbike.  I am happy to report that Poul is recovering nicely and eager to get back to work, perhaps in a couple of months, once she can start working out again herself.

Not so another trainer, the 35-year-old married father of two boys, whose name I’ll pretend for now is the common Socheat.

In a nation where much of the populace, even 30-year Prime Minister Hun Sen, is superstitious and believes in the power of curses, some Cambodians might well take seriously the notion of a curse on my gym.

I have gotten to know Socheat pretty well in the context of our conversations at my gym, The Place.  I know that he has struggled to pay for his kids’ tuition at a school where English is the language and that he sometimes skipped dinner to scrape up necessary funds.

I also know that Socheat — who used to kid me by calling me the “strongest man in the world,” mangling “world” — has had health problems. He told me about his constant headaches, attributing them to malaria, which he said he had acquired years ago, and about a burning sensation in his chest.

As he gulped tablet after tablet, which Cambodian-trained physicians and pharmacists routinely dispense by the carload to maximize income, I tried to figure out what was wrong and what he should do about his problems.  I was certain he had an ulcer in his digestive tract. With respect to his headaches, they sounded like migraines to me, who admittedly has no medical training.

It turns out that I was wrong.

While I was traveling this month with little Internet availability, I learned from a physician I know that a trainer at the gym nearly died in a doctor’s arms.  I assumed he had collapsed at the gym (though I discovered upon my return that it was at the trainer’s home) and immediately thought of Socheat.

I initially received word that he has inoperable and otherwise untreatable brain cancer and is certain to die.  The latest second- or third-hand information is that it isn’t cancer.  Rather, I hear, a Cambodian physician had him use a nasal spray, which somehow damaged the membrane covering his brain.  Still, it is not clear to me that a spray caused his problems.

After being admitted to a Cambodian hospital — where nothing good can be said about the care anyone receives for an illness that is worse than extremely routine — he was taken to Vietnam, where standards may be higher than here and lower than in Thailand or Singapore. The likelihood is that transport was several hours in a van, not an ambulance and not a medevac jet or helicopter.

I am given to understand that the first hospital in Vietnam misdiagnosed him with cancer and that a second institution made the different diagnosis, which seems to offer a measure of hope if correct.  In fact, Socheat was able to eat and talk on Tuesday after days of being comatose. But his memory, even of his family, reportedly is shot, yet may return.  At this writing, I am unable to determine whether that will happen.

The family’s expenses are said to run to $1,000 a day because of the illness, not only for medical care, a breathtaking sum for ordinary families.  (To put the number in perspective, it is doubtful that Socheat takes home as much as $300 a month.)

His family has sold everything, including a rude piece of mortgaged land to pay for his care.  Nothing is left to sell.

His and Poul’s health have not been the only bad news in recent weeks at The Place, which has a normal complement of only seven trainers.  A pool guy had a moto accident, and so did another trainer, who suffered a broken tooth, split lip, injured knee and wrecked moto.

The talk is of a curse, and one supervisor (from the West) says they are contemplating a Buddhist blessing of the building.

Of course, I am not one to believe in curses.

Yet another appeal for funds to support an employee of The Place started this week, the beneficiary being Socheat and his family, though I suspect the first collection for the other trainer a couple of months ago will result in much less generosity.  If the contributions won’t return the unfortunate trainer to relatively good health, perhaps any funds that his tapped-out co-workers donate will at least go a short way to giving some small amount of relief to his family.

Unfortunately, the ramifications of Socheat’s case are all too typical of the impact that illness has in Cambodia because of widespread lack both of insurance and of a system that provides competent healthcare.

The ugly truth is that Socheat’s situation is hardly unusual: Cambodia’s alarming rates of road deaths, construction accidents, medical malpractice and crime result in similar pain all the time.

In a sense, much of the populace is cursed, indeed, but otherworldly influences are not the reason.  The cause is individuals in power who line their own pockets, seek to otherwise advance themselves or both.  They do so at the expense of a people who deserves better.


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