Health for Happiness: Cambodia

Nicolle Healy, ACU Melbourne Nursing/Paramedicine Student

"As part of my degree at ACU I recently took part in a community engagement program in Cambodia called Health for Happiness, which is an initiative of ACU's Institute for Advancing Community Engagement (IACE) and Challenges Abroad Australia (CAA).

The aim of the program is to promote routine health procedures and to teach basic hygiene skills to reduce illness and disease in Cambodia's Battambang region. International aid work is something I hope to do when I finish my degree so this was the perfect opportunity to gain a real sense of the healthcare system in a developing country.

There were 10 ACU nursing and paramedicine students on the trip and the study component was supervised by Associate Professor Thomas Harding. Read More >>

We volunteered in a variety of health clinics in the local community where we had the opportunity to work alongside doctors and nurses to assess patients with mental health issues, administer immunisations and observe prenatal care.

Health care can be difficult to access in Cambodia. We performed basic health checks with both children and adults – looking at their heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, weight and height. Many of the patients were presenting with medical issues which required far more assistance than we were equipped to provide, which was frustrating at times.

The most confronting aspect of the trip was witnessing so many children in poverty. Many had been abandoned by their parents who had mainly left for Thailand to find work. It was not rare to see children wearing dirty oversized clothes, or no clothes at all. It made me sad and I couldn't help but contemplate their future.

Having Associate Professor Harding with us made the Cambodia experience both educational and fun. He played an instrumental role in teaching us the necessary skills to help overcome the language barrier between English and Khmer (local language). He was constantly quizzing us and prompting us to ensure we were gaining adequate knowledge. I love the way he recognised us as capable undergraduate clinicians and pushed us to make the most of the experience.

We also had the opportunity to assist at a local organisation called Children's Action for Development (CAD), which provides Khmer and English literacy classes to orphans, disadvantaged children and families. We ran sessions there with a focus on teaching young children basic hygiene skills such as hand washing, tooth brushing and hair washing. At one of the CAD centres more than 50 children were all sharing the one drinking cup. This was a major issue as it cultivated the transmission of germs between children. It was great to be able to use the money in our budget to buy each child their own cup. It was a small gesture on our part, but I'll never forget how grateful, appreciative and happy they were to receive something that in Australia we just take for granted.

Most of the children we came across had head lice, which was no surprise as this is a major health concern in Cambodia. We tried our best to make the treatment as fun as possible by creating silly hairstyles as we washed and combed the children's hair. The kids loved it and I won't forget the smiles on their faces any time soon.

On our last day in Cambodia we visited the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau, which is 11 km south west of Battambang. It was shocking to find out that people had been bludgeoned to death and tossed into the caves during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. This experience really opened my eyes to the pain and suffering that the people of Cambodia are still struggling to overcome."

Associate Professor Thomas Harding, Head, School Of Nursing, Midwifery And Paramedicine  (NSW/ACT)

"Although Battambang is classified as Cambodia's second largest city, I would still consider it to be relatively small. My reason for visiting was to supervise a group of ACU students and to ensure that they were meeting all the required competencies for their clinical unit in primary healthcare. But our key objective was to try to help build the health capacity of the local community.

I saw the trip as an opportunity to make a small contribution to the health of a developing nation while providing a culturally enriching experience for ACU students. We really wanted the local community and health centres to benefit from the initiative just as much as our students.

ACU students benefited immensely as they were exposed to a completely different Photography: supplied cultural context. They were required to think differently, apply their knowledge differently, and use their resources more effectively. They had the opportunity to reflect on their practice and on how they could better work with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Read More >>

Essentially, the students were learning about the best scope of practice, appropriate communication skills, demonstration of appropriate cultural awareness, and the integration of knowledge for appropriate diagnosis and strategies. The students also had a unique opportunity to treat patients who were presenting with a variety of health concerns typical to a developing country.

We saw young women beginning to display degeneration of the joints and osteoarthritis due to lifting and carrying heavy water bottles. There were cases of people with severe gastric problems due to poor diet, and we also came across people with mosquito born infections such as malaria. It was great just to be there, and to be able to contribute in a positive way.

ACU students had been actively involved in fundraising for supplies so we were able to provide items that could really make a difference. We went out and purchased coloured pens and pencils to support the children's learning, and basic necessities to assist with personal hygiene such as toothbrushes, lice combs and shampoo.

The health clinics were relying on quite archaic technology so it was good to be able to donate some slightly more sophisticated equipment, including a blood pressure machine and an instrument designed to measure the foetal heartbeat.

There was a degree of culture shock for some of the students as it was their first time out of Australia and they were put in a situation that was so different to what they were used to. Basically, they were confronted by the reality of life in a developing country – the heat, the rubbish, the disease, the poverty, the lack of infrastructure, all of it. I was genuinely impressed by how well they coped and adapted. Even under the most trying circumstances they managed to keep their sense of humour and the feedback from the locals in the area was extremely positive.

There were plenty of opportunities for the students to just enjoy themselves as well. In between volunteer sessions they visited the local cafés for iced coffee and fruit shakes, and there were other recreational activities available such as cycle tours with the locals. In my spare time I took a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is one of the major tourist attractions in the local area. I even managed to squeeze in a Cambodian cooking class and learnt how to make three dishes which was wonderful.

Nicolle was really excellent with the children and this was an area where she really shone. She had a lovely way of working with them. I remember one day when she had a group of children singing and clapping their hands with such enthusiasm. All of the students were wonderful and I was incredibly proud of them."

© Australian Catholic University. All rights reserved. 2015.
Insight Magazine Issue 12 - Spring 2015

Contact ACU:


Associate Professor Thomas Harding
Head, School Of Nursing, Midwifery And Paramedicine  (NSW/ACT)
T: +612 9701 4256

Dr Youssef Taouk
Research Associate
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +612 9701 4347

Mary Campbell
Relations Coordinator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 3 9953 3381

IACE Campus Community Engagement Contacts

Ms Janine Quine
Community Engagement Facilitator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 7 3623 7768

Fitzroy and Ballarat
Mary Campbell
Relations Coordinator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 3 9953 3381

Strathfield and North Sydney
Daniel Nelson
Community Engagement Facilitator
Institute for Advancing Community Engagement
T: +61 2 9701 4432
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