“It was a big risk,” Pfeiffer said. “But I would rather die than live like this. We had no soap or shampoo, so my girls had lice. I wanted a better life, with education for my girls.”
During the escape, they had no food or water. Carson remembers her mother scooping up some muddy water from a puddle and using clothing to try to filter it enough for them to drink.
Their “line” was among the first to arrive at the refugee camp. They got lucky when a man camping next to them claimed he was Pfeiffer’s husband while they were trying to get on one of three buses to Bangkok. Only complete families were chosen.
In a camp in Bangkok, members of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Tallahassee sponsored them to come to the United States. “I never dreamed I would come to America,” Pfeiffer said. “I use to listen to Elvis Presley and cowboy western songs on the American station.”
In Tallahassee, the church got Pfeiffer a job at a Chinese restaurant called Lucy Ho, and her girls went to school. Carson attended Pine View Elementary, starting in first grade at age 11 because she had been deprived of education for four years.
She stayed up well past midnight on many nights to study English and try to catch up. Teacher Clara Runyan, who knew oppression having come from Cuba, worked with Carson. It took nearly a year for her to utter her first English words in class, but when she finally did, Carson fondly remembers, the entire class clapped.
In 1992, she graduated from the nursing program at Los Angeles County Medical Center.
She married Bill Carson, and after a few years the couple moved to Key Largo. “It kind of reminded me of Cambodia — the tropical, humid weather, the palm trees and Royal Poinciana, and some of the fruit trees,” she said.
Carson was attending Florida International University for her masters degree in the family nurse practitioner program when she learned there were two volunteer slots open for the Cambodian leg of Pacific Partnership 2012, an 18-week mission with the U.S. Navy that would also serve Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Project HOPE (which stands for Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) has been in operation since 1958, but this was only its second trip to Cambodia. The first was in 2010.
Carson was chosen for her skills, experience and background. While in Cambodia, she was flown by helicopter to Kompong Speu, a rural town near a rice field. The primary school was turned into a makeshift clinic. When Carson arrived each morning at 7 a.m., there already were hundreds of people waiting in line for care. During the week, 7,157 children and adults received medical care, including 218 surgeries performed on the Navy’s medical ship.
Carson practiced her native language, Khmer, and easily bonded with her patients. She was surprised they had many of the same health problems as Americans. “Medicine is a universal language,” she said.
Carson returned home, bringing her youngest son, Benjamin, 8, a jar filled with a preserved cobra and scorpion. When Carson was in the jungle, she found a large cobra under a rock.
“It’s cool,” said Carson’s oldest son, Rush. Benjamin agreed. But they are still too young to fully understand the significance it has to their mother.
Carson hopes one day she will be able to return to Cambodia with her entire family. To provide care to more Cambodians. And to show them her childhood.