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The wife of Faculty dental graduate Dr Gary Hewett, who was honoured with an OAM this year for his work with the charity Awareness Cambodia, occasionally reminds him of a couple of things.
“Honey, I married a dentist, not a humanitarian,” she says wryly.
Dr Hewett founded the not-for-profit, Australian overseas aid organisation in 1996 after volunteering the previous year to work in Cambodia with his brother Neil, a doctor now working alongside WA bariatric surgeons.
“He did the medical, I did the dental, up the Mekong River,” Dr Gary Hewett says.
“It was really raw. The Khmer Rouge was still active and six Westerners had been abducted and killed in the previous 12 months, two of them Aussies.
“The north was a prison without walls because it was so heavily mined.”
Dr Hewett says his desire to provide ongoing help to the country that was ravaged during the terror years of the Pol Pot regime was cemented when a mother brought her four-year-old son to the makeshift clinic in the middle of nowhere, indicating he was in pain.
“He had two remaining lower incisors and the rest were down to gum level, he had two draining abscesses on the left-hand side and one draining abscess on the right side,” Dr Hewett says. He numbed the boy’s mouth and extracted four teeth.
“He did not blink once,”Dr Hewett says. “It was almost as though he was thinking, ‘Is that the best you have got, mate, because my life up here is hell?’”
Dr Hewett returned to Perth and set up the charity. He now practises as a dentist in Perth only half a day a week, devoting the rest of his time and resources to Awareness Cambodia.
He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in this year’s Australia Day honours list for his services in “developing cross cultural educational exchanges between WA and Cambodia and the establishment of services for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.”
His wife, Kim, sometimes reminisces with a sigh and reminds him, “We have gone from a Porsche to a Kia.” The irony is that she has given up her job as a school administrator to help run Awareness Cambodia.
Dr Hewett returned last month from another trip, which involved shepherding Australian school students who had volunteered to help in Cambodia. And his last medically oriented visit was in September, when he headed a team of 10 Australian doctors and nursing staff and a maintenance team of 20 people, all of whom gave up two weeks to work in clinics and on various projects.
Volunteers pay their own way, which amounts to about $2500 for maintenance workers. The cost is $3000 for medical team members, who pay extra so that medical supplies can be bought.
Although medicos are already lining up to join the next annual trip in September, and one senior nurse at Royal Perth Hospital gives up her holidays every year to go to Cambodia, the humanitarian group is always in need of volunteer doctors. The next team includes a traumatologist and a paediatrician because the local hospital has asked Awareness Cambodia to help train its doctors in these two disciplines.
The maintenance workers, who join teams that head to Cambodia twice a year, are often professionals lacking medical training but keen to help in any way they can.
One Perth lawyer recounting his trip on his return to Perth described how he had spent days on his knees tiling. “This is why I have got four degrees?” he said. “But it was one of the most amazing, rewarding experiences of my life.” He has since offered to do Awareness Cambodia’s legal work and sit on its Board.
The annual medical team provides GP expertise at the Operation Nightingale medical clinics, which Dr Hewett established in 2006 in Kompong Speu because there were only three Khmer-trained doctors to service the Public Health Department’s 22 health centres.
The clinics service the six villages of Kompong Speu Province.
The main clinical presentations are HIV and AIDS, which are rife, goitres, scabies, dengue fever, malaria, and cataracts. Patients with problems that require surgery or other specialist treatment, such as removal of cataracts, need to seek treatment in Phnom Penh or at periodic clinics visiting the province.
But the main people who benefit are mothers and their children, according to Dr Hewett, who notes that the infant mortality rate in Cambodia is about 1 in 10.
“The birth rate is about 460,000 each year and of those, 43,000 won’t make it to their first birthday and more than 60,000 will not make it to their fifth birthday,” he says.
On the last visit, the medical team took up brand-new wheelchairs in boxes and one was assembled and given to a patient. Word got around and a boy who looked 14 arrived on his father’s back. It turned out he was, in fact, 24 years old and had contracted encephalitis at the age of six. For the past 19 years he had been carried everywhere by his father.
“We made up another wheelchair for him,” Dr Hewett says. “The look on his parents’ face when he got our wheelchair, well, a million dollars could not buy it. It was like every birthday present had arrived at once.”
The medical clinics began with just one in 2006 and now there are four regular clinics run by well-trained Cambodian doctors and nursing staff, with a fifth clinic on the way. However, most clinics have no running water and no power and the hope is to set up solar-powered clinics in future.
Dr Hewett also plans to set up a training course for paramedics. The course is written but is awaiting final approval from the local authorities. Dr Hewett is also keen to eventually establish a Royal Flying Doctor Service for the area.
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