I am Cheat Sokha from Cambodia, and I have been a paraplegic since I was 14-years-old. At the time of my injury my family and I lived in a small village near the border of Thailand. Cambodia had been experiencing civil war for more than a decade.
One evening in 1985, I heard shooting from the next village. One shot fell in the premises of my house. I suddenly fell down and I noticed that I could not feel from my waist down. Shrapnel had hit my backbone and I had a spinal cord injury (SCI).
There was no treatment, rehabilitation, or awareness of SCI in Cambodia at that time and initially, I had no treatment at all. Very quickly I developed a pressure sore and my condition worsened. My family tried to seek treatment for me, carrying me to the refugee camp across the border to Thailand. This was both illegal and hazardous, with landmines and military deployed along the border.
It was at the refugee camp that I first received rehabilitation, and indeed, knew what it was. It was the NGOs, Handicap International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, who provided this.
During rehabilitation, my situation improved; my initial pressure sore healed and I learnt how to prevent them. I also learnt how to mobilize, to dress myself, move from bed to wheelchair and how to get around in my wheelchair.
SCI is a big challenge for anyone, especially in a poor country like Cambodia. Before rehabilitation I couldn’t see my future; I was always in despair, depressed, and never believed that I could do anything such as study or work. I always felt my life would be difficult. Rehabilitation taught me to see my future and made me a different person. In rehabilitation I learnt that people with SCI could actually work. At the rehabilitation centre I witnessed people with SCI and amputations working in the workshop.
In 2012 I had the opportunity to establish the SCI Association of Cambodia, which offers peer support. Since then I have been working with many Cambodian people with SCI.
“Rehabilitation taught me to see my future and made me a different person. In rehabilitation I learnt that people with SCI could actually work”
The family of someone with a SCI often seeks treatment and rehabilitation for their loved one to enable them to walk. Through this experience, many learn that they cannot walk again and believe they will be a burden to the family. The family must keep working hard to make money to pay for treatment from the medical services or drug shop.
In Cambodia, most people with SCI live at home, they don’t go out, they don’t work, and they seem isolated by community and society.
When I go out in rural community I meet people who did not get rehabilitation. They suffer and live with SCI complications such as pressure sores, urinary problems, fever, contracture of stiff joints, and not being independent. Their families tell me later that he or she has died, mostly because of pressure sores. But they also die because of depression; they give up, they don’t care about their situation. Many die within two years of their injury.
“When I go out in the rural community I meet people who did not get rehabilitation. They suffer and live with complications… Their families tell me later that he or she has died, mostly because of pressure sores… Many die within two years of their injuries.”
But good quality rehab makes a difference, and I have seen this. With good quality rehabilitation, they understand, they know how to take care of themselves, and how to be independent and how to adjust to life after SCI. They can re-integrate, they get vocational training, a job, get money and then are appreciated in the family and community. They survive longer.
In Cambodia, how people manage after SCI depends on the individual family – if they support the person enough and if they have money. It shouldn’t be about this.
Article 26 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, says that rehabilitation is a human right and that State Parties have to take measures to protect, promote and ensure that people can access quality rehabilitation. So far, this is not always the reality. By 2030, I hope that nobody needing rehabilitation is left behind.