New Kyabram doctor Vuthy Keng prefers to look forward rather than back, which is understandable, given the nature of his formative years in his homeland.
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From an office within Kyabram District Health Service’s Urgent Care Centre, he offered a brief appraisal of how he went from being the 11-year-old son of two teachers living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to being forced from their home to spend the next four years in a labour camp working in rice fields — before arriving in Australia in 2004.
After the Year Zero declaration of Communist dictator Pol Pot forced the then primary school student to put life on pause, he was eventually able to resume his education and become a doctor.
And although there were many challenges along the way, life in country Victoria suits the 59-year-old just fine.
Sitting on the banks of the Murray River at Echuca with a fishing rod in hand and protected by the shade of towering Australian gums is about as far from a Cambodian labour camp as he could have imagined.
During the 1975 takeover of Cambodia by the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge, Dr Keng and his family were shuffled from their Phnom Penh home to labour camps in the country’s rural region.
Just shy of half a century later, Dr Keng was about to start rounds at KDHS when I was able to grab half an hour of his now highly sought-after time to talk about his arrival in town.
Millions were murdered during the Khmer Rouge reign over Cambodian society, but among the thousands that fled across the border into Thailand was the aunty of the woman who would eventually become Dr Keng’s wife, and mother of his three children, Chorvi Iem.
After surviving the dictatorship, being reunited with his family and eventually earning his passage into the Cambodian Faculty of Medicine (Phnom Penh’s most prestigious medical university), he would eventually earn the ‘Dr’ prefix before his name.
Ten years spent working in Cambodia as a GP eventually made way to he and his wife’s decision to join her aunt and mother, who had also moved to Australia, in the lucky country.
“My wife’s aunt was living in Australia. She had come to Australia in 1975 to study, but when the Khmer Rouge took over, she could not return, and she made Australia her home,” he said.
“In 1980, she sponsored my mother-in-law to come to Australia. Then, 20 years ago, my wife and I — along with our 10-year-old and our second child, a baby at the time — arrived here.”
An interesting footnote to the story is that the aunt chiefly responsible for the extended family having a smoother route to becoming Australian residents eventually returned to Cambodia.
“She and her husband were members of a political party and eventually they decided to return to Cambodia where he became the rural minister for several years,” Dr Keng said.
Meanwhile, Dr Keng had to start again.
He had to surrender his credentials as a registered Cambodian doctor on arrival in Australia and accept the challenge of further study, along with the piles of associated paperwork that would eventually allow him to be recognised as a registered medic in Australia.
“I couldn’t work straight away. I needed to work in a nursing home for four years and pass the English test, as well as complete all the paperwork and recommended exams,” he said.
He worked in Bupa Care facilities at Cranbourne, Pakenham, Berwick and Narre Warren before re-earning his credentials and eventually spent almost a decade as a GP in the small south Gippsland town of Korumburra.
Dr Keng is an unabashed fan of country life and, since commencing his medical career in Australia (a decade and a half ago), has always sought out roles in regional areas.
Kyabram is no exception; an affinity with the Murray River one of the key factors in his decision to apply for the role as KDHS’s only salaried medical officer.
“I love fishing and, as a family, we would regularly spend our holidays or long weekends at Echuca-Moama or Mathoura,” he said.
“We would come up at least twice a year, so Kyabram being so close to the river was very appealing.
“When I am not working, I will often go to Echuca and fish. I only ever catch carp, mind you.”
Dr Keng’s role at the hospital means that patients who present at the Urgent Care facility can obtain immediate medical assistance.
“It means people don’t have to travel to Shepparton and Echuca and sit in emergency, waiting sometimes for extended periods to be treated,” he said.
Dr Keng works for KDHS in the Acute Ward, Urgent Care Centre and the Sheridan Nursing Home, quietly going about his work to provide various medical services to the young, old and in-between patients that make up his new clientele.
Some keen-eyed Kyabramites may have noticed the bespectacled doctor walking the streets of Kyabram, mainly between his favourite Allan St coffee shop and the hospital.
“I really love walking and Kyabram is such a pretty town; it makes my walks so much more enjoyable,” he said.
Dr Keng said he had been amazed by just how much effort people in Kyabram went to to keep their house in good order.
“Even the nature strips are really nice,” he said.
“It’s much better than Melbourne.”
For the record, Dr Keng has adopted Geelong as his AFL team of choice, although “Collingwood are not too bad”, and he is a devotee of The Age newspaper.
“I like keeping up on world events, particularly things like the events of the Gaza Strip and Ukraine,” he said.
As for his long-term goal, Dr Keng said he could think of nothing better than living close to the river in his retirement.
“I might even catch a cod one day,” he said.