Danielle Pech Carson walked down the water taxi ramp to the docks at Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia, and burst into tears. Childhood memories came flooding back. Some were happy. Most were horrifying.
The last time Carson saw her homeland, in 1979, she was a malnourished, frightened, 11-year-old refugee — a survivor of the “killing fields.” Her world had been turned into a four-year living hell by the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge.
She returned to Cambodia aboard the U.S. Navy Ship Mercy as a happy wife and mom — and as a registered nurse who was bringing her expertise as a medical volunteer with Project HOPE.
“It was so emotional,” said Carson, 44, who lives in Key Largo and works in the emergency department at Homestead Hospital. “At first I was shocked. Wow, I can’t believe I am back again. … I walked to a private area and just cried.”
Her mom, Samath Pfeiffer, who was making her second pilgrimage to Cambodia, was waiting for Carson’s arrival at the dock to provide hugs and emotional support. Mom was a pillar of strength, just as she had been decades earlier during their long struggle in the jungle and dangerous escape to Thailand.
“I was speechless,” Pfeiffer said of that moment on the docks. “What went through my mind? Finally, she made it back. I thought she would die in the jungle. But like me, too, God gave her an extra 35 years to live.”
Pfeiffer also stood on the docks as a proud mother: “Pech came back as a successful nurse who wanted to help poor people. It really makes me feel wonderful.”
Carson spent the first week in Cambodia providing care to adults and children with a variety of ailments, including arthritis, respiratory problems, anxiety, bad backs, the common cold, the flu and obesity-related issues. She taught many about prevention.
During her second week in her homeland, she explored ancient temples and immersed herself in native culture that included watching a traditional Cambodian wedding with elaborate costumes.
Geraldine Carroll, a spokeswoman with Project HOPE, said it’s unique for medical volunteers to have come from the country they are serving, especially someone who had lived under a ruthless regime.
“Everyone on the mission was touched by her story,” Carroll said.
The local community embraced Carson as one of their own. The young patients adored her. And, Carroll said, the medical personnel on the Mercy gained a deeper appreciation of how much people value their help.
Carson’s story begins in 1968, when she was born in the capital city of Phnom Penh. She remembers loving to go for car rides, a rarity at the time, and eating delicious fruit. She also remembers not doing so well in school, one time getting slapped on the hand with a ruler for missing a math problem.
She never knew her real father but had a caring stepfather who worked as a college professor while her mom stayed home with three small kids.
Life was good until April 17, 1975, the day Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces stormed the capital city with a mission to purge intellectuals, businessmen, Buddhists and foreigners in order to create a Communist agrarian society. Those who were not slaughtered were forced to leave their homes and walk to the countryside.
It was the last day Carson saw her stepfather, who was believed to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge while he was helping to guard the college where he worked.