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On a mission to help Cambodia

LONG BEACH: Doctor who escaped death in Killing Fields gathers team for medical trip. 

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Updated: 12/20/2010 11:02:47 PM PST
Dr. Song Tan, center left,
and Dr. Tony Chi, DMD, help others in packaging medical supplies at St.
Mary Medical Center’s Health Enhancement Center in Long Beach for a
group of local doctors headed up by Dr. Song Tan that will travel to
Phnom Penh where they will set up a free clinic in a poor area of town.
(Steven Georges / Press-Telegram)

LONG BEACH – As he sat in
his Karing Pediatrics office Monday morning with Christmas carols
playing in the background, Dr. Song Tan’s mind was a million miles

Well, maybe more like 8,300 miles. In his homeland of Cambodia, to be precise.

where Project Angkor, a medical mission organized by Tan, will be
staged in a poor neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Volunteer Therosa Prok of
Long Beach sorts out thyroid medication that will be shipped to
Cambodia as part of a medical mission planned by the Cambodian Health
Professionals Association in Long Beach. (Steven Georges/Press-Telegram)

The longtime local pediatrician embarks tonight on a
journey that’s been five years in the planning. But it has roots that
go back to the Killing Fields, where only sloppy bookkeeping kept Tan
from joining the upward of 2 million who died during the reign of the
Khmer Rouge.

Of about 500 doctors in Cambodia at the time the Khmer
Rouge took over, only about 40 survived. Most were executed by the
government, which targeted those with education for eradication.

Tan remembers he was among a group of doctors the Khmer
Rouge said it needed to assist with patient care. A young doctor at the
time, Tan was eager to do his part to care for the afflicted.

However, through a clerical error, Tan’s name wasn’t on the
list of doctors the Khmer Rouge sought. He remembers being angry when
he wasn’t selected to go. Only later did he learn the group had been

It wouldn’t be until more than 25 years after the Khmer Rouge downfall in 1979 that Tan would return to his home country.

But when he saw the suffering and the deprivation that still exist, especially among the burgeoning youth population, the pediatrician knew he had to do something.

That’s when the seeds for Project Angkor were first planted.

and other Cambodian doctors and health providers revived the Cambodian
Health Professional Association of America and began the process of
organizing a medical mission to Cambodia.

While there have been other medical missions to Cambodia
throughout the years, Tan says his effort is the first organized and
primarily staffed by Cambodian-Americans.

Volunteers of Project Angkor, which Tan hopes will become
an annual mission, will set up shop at the Khmuonh Health Center in the
rundown Khan Sen Sok area of Phnom Penh.

Tan says his group expects to treat 500 or more patients per day between Jan. 3 and 7.

the past two weekends, about 50 to 60 volunteers, ranging from 12 years
old to senior citizens, went through the process of packaging medical
supplies for the trip. Tan says his group has packed more than 2,500
pounds of supplies for the trip, including more than 80,000 Tylenol

“We have more boxes than people to carry them,” Tan said. “We are going to donate a lot (to the health center).”

total of 52 volunteers will take part in the mission, which leaves on
Dec. 29 and returns Jan. 11. In addition to operating the clinic, the
group will make the mandatory side trip to Siem Riep to see the
magnificent Angkor Wat ruins and visit the Angkor Hospital for

At the clinic, the volunteers, who include doctors, nurses,
five dentists and student helpers, will provide primary care and

“We want to have the most impact we can,” Tan said.

doctor said that while his team will help train the health care
providers on-site in Cambodia, it will learn from the experience as

Tan said physicians may see diseases such as malaria and measles that are rare here and malnutrition rather than obesity.

“This won’t be a one-way street,” Tan said of the educational exchange. “It’s a very (good) learning experience for us.”

also says his team will take what it learns to fine-tune its offerings
for future visits. The goal is to bring over surgeons and other
specialists in successive years.

Thirty-five years ago, the young doctor was denied a chance to help others. Now, he hopes to make the most of this chance.


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