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Cambodia Calling: A Memoir from the Frontlines of Doctors Without Borders

by Richard Heinzl

Among the frontline troops of international humanitarian aid, few share the rugged reputation of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an NGO that invites doctors to leave their comfortable offices and salaries for low-paying medical positions in war zones.

Cambodia Calling is the memoir of Richard Heinzl, a McMaster University medical graduate who, enamoured of Third World travel, first runs into MSF while hitching through Uganda. Inspired by what he sees, he vows to start a Canadian chapter, and in 1991 sets out to perform a year’s duty in Cambodia, a country still suffering from war, poverty, and isolation. Stationed in a remote village surrounded by hundreds of thousands of land mines, Heinzl is part of a daunting two-man mission to rebuild a hospital.

All of this makes for a potentially good read. Unfortunately, Heinzl is not quite up to the task of pulling it off. A world traveller with a wide variety of medical experience at home and abroad, he has a lot to say, but his writing lacks the required focus. Indeed, much of the work reads as if it were culled from scattered, unedited blog entries and letters home. While Heinzl was no doubt moved by his experiences, especially his interactions with children, his unfocused writing style never allows us to make emotional connections.

Readers may also be surprised to find a tone of bitter cynicism throughout the tale. This is somewhat understandable, given that Heinzl’s original enthusiasm for MSF gets dampened by bureaucratic infighting, but it does become tiresome to hear him complain time and again of the primitive conditions, the quaint customs and accents of the locals, and the difficulty in finding a good German import beer.

Ultimately, like many a tale of privileged North Americans finding themselves in an impoverished world, we tend to learn more about the limitations of the writer than the world he seeks to explore.