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The Fixer: Rebuilding Medical System In Cambodia Includes A Lesson In Mechanics

It was almost midnight Dec. 7, 2015 when Phil Camillocci got off a plane in Phnom Penh, Cambodia — the last leg of a 20-hour journey from West Palm Beach, Florida. He was carrying a large suitcase packed with a few days’ worth of clothes and a bunch of used medical equipment. Then the weary traveler saw his ground transportation.

“It was a tuk-tuk, which is a little two-wheel scooter with a trailer attached to it,” he recalls. The rickety vehicle carried Camillocci to the University of Puthisastra, where he started his three-week stint teaching students to repair medical equipment. These kinds of programs are a big part of why life expectancy in Cambodia has gone from 29 years is 1980 to 71 years today.

Camillocci, who is a technical training developer with GE Healthcare, was in Cambodia as a volunteer for Engineering World Health, an organization that trains biomedical technicians in developing countries that desperately need them. “Up to 70 percent of medical equipment [in Cambodia] is not being utilized due to a lack of training on how to use it, or because the equipment is broken and no one can fix it,” Camillocci says. “No one’s there to do the preventive maintenance on the units, so they basically toss them out the door in the hallway and the equipment sits there.”

Top: A tuk-tuk in Cambodia. Image credit: Getty Images. Above: Cambodian hospitals have much of the equipment they need, but not enough technicians to operate and maintain it. The Biomedical Equipment Technician program is helping. Image credit: GE Foundation.

Camillocci already knew that the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of GE, was working in Cambodia. Since 2008, the foundation has provided $13 million in equipment and training to the country, and its Developing Health Globally program works with 31 public hospitals there. It also partners with Engineering World Health, where Camillocci was volunteering.

Camillocci ended up working at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, where he taught students in one of EWH’s Training Centers of Excellence, a facility that the GE Foundation built to help educate technicians. “As the students develop their skills, they work part time at the hospital shadowing technicians that have already been through the program or are farther along,” he says.

This wasn’t Camillocci’s first trip to Southeast Asia. In the ’80s he had done a four-year Army tour in Bangkok, Thailand, where he met his wife. Camillocci’s familiarity with the region and its culture made him an ideal match for Cambodia.

But he soon found that the situation in Cambodia was much different from his experience working on a U.S. military base in Bangkok. Some of the buildings were in a bad shape, he says. “It definitely isn’t like a hospital here in the United States.”

Students, who range in age from their teens to their early 40s, get lessons in basic math and English, hospital procedures and mechanics. Image credit: GE Foundation.

He also discovered the steep challenges that his students face from the lingering effects of the 1975 revolution that wiped out a generation of intellectuals. “The Khmer Rouge basically gutted the brain trust,” he says. “You sort of see that still reflected now in terms of the level of education of the people that you’re working with.” For the students, who ranged from their late teens to their 40s, every week began with training in the basic math and English that they needed to know before they could begin working on the equipment.

Camillocci also found that he needed to teach his students fundamental hospital procedures, including electrical safety, protection against bloodborne pathogens and why it’s important to wear proper footwear. “They were walking around in sandals with no socks on,” he recalls. “You need steel-toed boots. You drop a piece of heavy equipment on your sandals, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”

With the foundation’s help, Camillocci and his students were able to repair some of Calmette Hospital’s long-dormant equipment, including several microscopes that had never been serviced and some older infant warmers. In many cases, they found, the expensive machines had been sidelined for minor reasons. For example, they discovered that a C-Arm, a piece of imaging machinery that had been donated by an Australian charity, wasn’t being used because the batteries were dead. But while the problem was easy to diagnose, it was complicated to fix. “It took them two years to get a set of batteries,” Camillocci says.

The work that Camillocci and his students did with abandoned devices had a double benefit. For the students, it provided practical, hands-on repair training. And, for the hospital, it provided more equipment that they could use to treat patients.

Since its inception in 2012, the GE Foundation’s Biomedical Equipment Technician training program has graduated more than 50 technicians and has established a pipeline program from Cambodia.

Camillocci returned to Cambodia for another tour in 2016, but he hopes to go back soon. “There are a lot of people who would like to go over and work on stuff or teach for two or three weeks, but they don’t have the money or the vacation time to spare,” he says. “The thing is, you can donate a machine, but if there’s no one there to fix it, it’s going to get parked in the hallway.”

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