The Kantha Bopha hospitals yesterday marked a milestone in their operations in Cambodia, celebrating 25 years since the first patient was admitted in November 1992 after Beat Richner was asked to rebuild the Kingdom’s hospitals by then-King Norodom Sihanouk.
Since then, the Kantha Bopha hospitals – named after a daughter of Sihanouk who died of leukemia – in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have provided free treatment for severely ill children, regardless of income status, treating nearly 18 million children from 1992 to 2016.
But yesterday’s festivities, which were attended by King Norodom Sihamoni, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath and first lady Bun Rany, were also marked by a palpable absence – that of Richner himself, who was forced to step down eight months ago due to serious health problems.
Peter A Studer, vice president of the Kantha Bopha Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, who took over as the head of the hospitals, said Richner, 70, is living in a residence for the elderly in Switzerland.
According to Studer, doctors still haven’t managed to diagnose Richner with a specific brain disease, but he said it is causing very rapid memory loss. It is likely not Alzheimer’s, as the memory loss would be much slower, he said.
“Unfortunately, he’s losing more and more of his memory,” he said. “He recognises me in the moment. I’m with him in the morning, but in the afternoon, I’m not sure if he realises it’s me.”
Rene Schwarzenbach, president of the foundation, said Richner is a different person than he was, even a year ago, when he was “still able to see so much detail” and manage all the complexities of the hospitals while still paying attention to patients.
Physically, he’s doing well, he added, and he still talks and laughs, though he has lost weight. “He’s not suffering, but he’s losing more and more of his memory . . . But of course, it’s very sad for us to see that.”
Asked if Richner still remembers Kantha Bopha, Studer said he avoided the subject because he believed it would be difficult for him.
But even as Richner’s own memory fades, others’ memories of him haven’t. Pen Monyrath, a paediatric surgeon at Kantha Bopha, said Richner was their “hero”.
“He almost had no free time to relax; he was always at the hospital,” he said. “We are all very sad for him.”
Meanwhile, Dr Heng Sothy, deputy director of the Kantha Bopha Hospital in Phnom Penh, said the hospitals are still running at full capacity and offering patients quality care.
The group that was established by the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the Ministry of Health to prepare a plan for ultimately turning the hospitals into state-run institutions has laid out a budget plan through 2025, though Sothy said he didn’t have the specific figures.
Health Minister Mam Bun Heng declined to comment.
Studer said the Cambodian government had increased its current $6 million annual contribution to $10 million next year, not including the $2 donated from every ticket sale at the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, which would bring the total contribution up to around $15 million every year.
Additionally, the Cambodian Red Cross will continue to make its $1 million annual donation. The hospitals’ annual budget is $42 million.
Studer said the government had “promised” to continue to increase its contribution every year. “But we will see,” he said.