Dr HIDETO Yoshioka, a Japanese surgeon and founder of the international paediatric cancer NGO Japan Heart, is ready to perform life-saving operations on children with cancer during his two-week surgical mission to the Kingdom which starts at the end of June.

Currently, Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre (JHCMC), located at Ponhea Leu Referral Hospital in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, is treating 35 children diagnosed with cancer.

Ten have already undergone surgery and are at critical stages in their recovery.

According to JHCMC, over 16,000 Cambodian children each year receive outpatient medical services at the hospital among a total of over 60,000 patients since opening in 2018.

In addition to 45 beds for general paediatric patients and 27 beds for children diagnosed with cancers, the centre also has 39 beds for adult patients. A total of 400-600 patients undergo inpatient treatments there each month, except during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hiroyuki Yamashita, the administration manager at Japan Heart, said that in the past six months, six to eight children with cancer came to the hospital for treatment each month on average, noting that there were 11 children in need of help in May.

For the last three years and 10 months, JHCMC has treated 227 children with cancer – 28 in the first year, 46 in the second, 83 in the third and 70 in the past 10 months.

According to the centre, in one year it performed over 1,380 general surgeries, noting that since it began operations, it has carried out surgery on approximately 5,000 patients.

More than 90 per cent of cancer patients were referred to Japan Heart hospital by other facilities since the centre began cancer treatment services and over 70 per cent of the hospital’s surgeries were performed on cancer patients.

Having seen high mortality rates among children with serious illnesses in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, Dr Yoshioka founded the Japan Heart organisation in 2004 in order to help overcome deficiencies in care with the hospitals, clinics, doctors and available treatments in those countries.

The 58-year-old doctor urges parents to bring any child diagnosed with cancer to Japan Heart for treatment as soon as possible, because when cancer is aggressively treated in its early stages most children have a high chance of recovery.

The high costs of cancer treatments remain a challenge for Japan Heart, but the institution is happy to provide their life-saving services to children who are suffering from this fierce disease.

“When we cure a child at an early age and they are then able to grow up, they can work towards helping society and sharing this compassion with others,” Dr Yoshioka, the founder of Japan Heart organisation, told The Post.

Regular check-ups

As far as early detection of cancer goes, the doctor recommends that children see a physician at least once yearly for a general medical check-up if possible.

Beyond that, parents should be alert to the presence of any irregularities such as unusual swelling in any part of their body as well as symptoms such as unexplained nausea or vomiting or seizures.

For example, three-year-old Sithika had trouble breathing because she had a tumour in her left lung.

Doctors at Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre call for blood donations to help children on June 15. SUPPLIED

Her trouble breathing was the first warning sign something was wrong, though until it was confirmed by diagnosis the problem could have been caused by any number of conditions.

Fortunately, her parents brought her to a doctor and a scan of her lungs revealed the true cause.

The little girl’s health condition was very precarious during the operation to remove the tumour and she needed more than 20 bags of blood for transfusion during her surgery.

Japan Heart spent over $13,500 on services for her at partner hospitals and that’s excluding the costs of chemotherapy, surgery and treatment at their own centre.

Besides facing financial challenges, Japan Heart organisation also faces chronic blood shortages for their surgeries for children with cancer, and that presents a major obstacle for treating them promptly.

The hospital’s blood shortages were even more severe during the Covid-19 crisis, but with the pandemic effectively ended in the Kingdom, blood donations still haven’t recovered to their pre-Covid levels.

To begin solving this problem for their patients and for healthcare in general throughout Cambodia, Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre has organised a blood donation event at AEON Mall 1 in Phnom Penh on June 29.

This event will hopefully bring in much needed blood for their paediatric cancer patients as well as raise awareness among Cambodians about the importance of donating blood.

“We will always perform operations for children, but it depends on the specific conditions and medical needs of the children with cancer.

“So every two to three months, our founder, Yoshioka, comes from Japan to perform surgery,” Yamashita said.

“Generally, the use of blood is about equal for chemotherapy. We need 15 to 20 bags of blood every month for that, and between 15 to 20 bags for each surgery.”

Lun Malin brought her 7-year-old son, Udom diagnosed with liver cancer, to be treated at Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre. They are now waiting for his surgery to be performed in the next two weeks.

Malin, 38, said that her son initially complained of abdominal pains, nausea and vomiting and it was at the point that he could not eat for three days straight that she brought him in and they discovered the cancer.

She first took her son to a private clinic where he was diagnosed with a possible liver tumour. They advised her to go to Kantha Bopha Hospital in Siem Reap.

“Kantha Bopha arranged for me to bring my son to Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre, and now my son is waiting for surgery there,” she said.

Growing need for blood

Udom’s surgery and chemotherapy will require a great deal of donated blood and it’s urgent that Cambodians begin donating blood in larger numbers in order to meet this growing need for him and for every other medical patient, child or adult, in the Kingdom who may require a transfusion to survive.

“I would like to ask the Cambodian people to please help donate blood to save our children. Only brothers and sisters can help children who have to undergo surgery such as my son and the other children,” she said through sobs.

For certain very complicated cases, some Cambodian children with cancer are sent to Japan for surgery there.

In fact, at the beginning of 2021, there were two babies – a one-year-old and a nine-month-old – were sent to Japan for surgery at the National Hospital Organization’s Okayama Medical Centre in Japan, despite the Covid-19 crisis.

In 2011, 2015 and 2017, Japan Heart sent children with cancer to Japan for surgery successfully and they returned home in good health afterwards.

Miguel Jeronimo, a Portuguese artist and photographer who regularly organises charity events to give back to the community in Cambodia as a long-term resident, also initiated a campaign called “Blood of Kindness” with the help of many other artists.

“I initiated the campaign because the children at the hospitals here needed blood urgently and we selected Japan Heart to help out because they provide free treatment to all children with cancer,” he said.

“But the most important thing that everyone can do to help solve this problem is also the most obvious and easiest thing they can do: donate your blood regularly and encourage everyone you know to do so as well.”

Yamashita said that for the upcoming June 29 event at AEON Mall 1 they expect around 200 to 250 people to donate blood, which should be enough to cover one month of surgery and chemotherapy at Japan Heart.

“But we also need to take care of other children with cancer every month. And we’re just one hospital of many, and there are many people in need of blood urgently, so we hope that more people will come and donate blood at this event,” he said.

Visit @japanheart.hospital on Facebook or contact Japan Heart Children’s Medical Centre at 077 959 471 for more details.