I first went to mission on my own in India, working with deaf students at the Technical Training Centre for the Deaf in Bangalore. I fell in love with Asia there and asked my bishop if I could continue long-term in mission in Asia. He was open to the idea, and I joined the Maryknoll Associate Priest program and began working with Maryknoll Lay Missioners.
I had wanted to go back to India, but Maryknoll didn’t work there, so I spent 13 years in Hong Kong working with a Catholic deaf school and setting up a deaf parish. In Hong Kong I was also a spiritual director for a Guadalupe seminarian. He became interested in deaf ministry and eventually replaced me, and so I moved to Cambodia in 2000.
I had first come to Cambodia in 1997 to assess the situation of deaf people in the kingdom. There was practically nothing being done for Cambodian deaf people then—no organized sign language, no schools for the deaf, no organizations providing services to those who couldn’t hear. I started working with the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization which, with the Finnish Association of the Deaf, was setting up the Deaf Development Programme. Then a year later, Maryknoll Cambodia took over the administration of the Deaf Development Programme (DDP), and I became the director.
During my early years in Cambodia, I lived with Maryknoll Father John Barth, who was training basic eye doctors and eye nurses in a program that eventually became the Takeo Eye Hospital. His goal was to provide excellent eye care to the many poor in the rural area who suffered needlessly from treatable eye problems. Because of John, I knew many of the German eye surgeons and foreign nurses who came to train the local medical staff, and I went to the formal opening of the hospital where the king of Cambodia presided.
A few years later, I started developing cataracts, and eventually I knew it was time to do something. The medical system in Cambodia is in a developing stage, with limited equipment, training, and skills, and most foreigners here go to their home country or to Bangkok or Singapore for major medical needs. All of us Maryknollers in Cambodia have been going to BNH Hospital in Bangkok for more than 30 years, and my doctor there said that she could arrange the cataract surgery.
But because I was familiar with the Takeo Eye Hospital and knew how diligently Father Barth had worked to provide good eye care while training local eye doctors and nurses, I opted to have the surgery done in Takeo. I would not have to make one or two trips to Bangkok, and it would certainly save both time and money if I had the surgery in Cambodia.
After making arrangements with Te Serey Bonn, the young man whom Father John had sent overseas to get training to run the hospital, I took a shared taxi to rural Takeo on the day of the surgery. As I registered, I was the object of a lot of attention on the part of the villagers coming from the provinces who don’t see many foreigners.
More surprising to me, though, was the reaction of the hospital staff. They were so pleased and proud to have me there. The German doctors were gone, and I was the first foreigner to be operated on by Cambodian doctors. In addition, I was from Maryknoll, which had set up the hospital, and I was a priest. It gave them so much “face” for me to trust them with my eyes.
Everything is simple there, and I sat on the outside benches, waiting my turn along with all the poor farmers, but I had my own room with a toilet rather than the large wards. The staff were very solicitous, checking on me and making sure I got to the outdoor canteen to eat and then on to various doctors and staff for check-ups and evaluation. Through it all I got the persistent impression that they were just happy I was there. And on top of that, it cost me only $400 for surgery on each eye.
Sometimes the best thing we can do in mission is just to be with people and recognize their goodness, their gifts and talents.
Father Charlie Dittmeier is the co-director of the Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is a member of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, and a Maryknoll Associate Priest.
The top two photos are courtesy of the Takeo Eye Hospital, the bottom two photos are by Father Charlie Dittmeier.
For more on the Deaf Development Programme, watch this video and read this article.