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The Killing Fields Didn't Kill Their Kindness

My husband, Jim, and his fellow psychiatry resident, Sokhom, were both at Site 2, the Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border. Sokhom, as a refugee, and 10 years later, Jim, as a medical student. Jim didn’t meet Sokhom until they trained together in Boston, where they discovered that they both had been at Site 2. While they trained together, Jim and I got to know Sokhom and his wife, Heang.

Sokhom was an internist at the main hospital in Phnom Penh. He happened to be off the night of April 17, 1975, when the Communist Khmer Rouge, let by Pol Pot, staged a bloody coup and seized control of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge distrusted anyone educated, particularly professionals, and went on a brutal killing spree of all physicians working in the hospital that night. Sokhom lost many friends and colleagues. Heang had a large extended family, who were all killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Sokhom and Heang had four young children, and were out to dinner that terrible night, while the children were with sitters. It was chaos. They were able to get to their oldest two sons and daughter but were separated from their youngest, a 2-year old, boy. Sokhom and Heang were unable to find him before they were forced to flee to the fields. Many years later, when it was safe and they had the resources, Sokhom returned to Cambodian looking for their youngest son but never found him.

They were careful to hide the fact that Sokhom was a physician and Heang a teacher. Even when their daughter became sick in the fields, Sokhom couldn't demonstrate his medical knowledge and their daughter died. When they heard that more men were going to be killed, they fled again. This time, Sokhom with their oldest son, Ratanak, escaped thru the jungle. Heang with their second oldest son, Vichet, escaped by boat. The four managed to make it to Site 2.

Eventually, they emigrated to the United States, where they received help from Catholic Social Charities in New York. Without any evidence of his medical credentials, Sokhom started over, learning English and taking medical licensing exams in the US. Sokhom was a year ahead and selected for the same Harvard residency program in psychiatry as my husband, Jim. Each residency class had 13 doctors, and Sokhom and Jim worked together for two years.

During that time, we became friends with Sokhom and Heang. Humble, kind and outgoing, I remember having a traditional Cambodian dinner at their home in Boston, enough food for a small army, everything was delicious. English was not easy for them, but they were always easy with a smile, their frequent form of communication.

Since she had been a teacher, Heang was especially drawn to people with an education. Despite my attempts to correct her, Heang insisted on calling me Dr Kathy because of my law degree. "Th" was hard to pronounce for both of them so my name became Katy, in person and later in holiday greetings. And of course, Jim was always Dr Jim. In contrast to casual Americans, Sokhom and Heang's formality was poignant. After 30 plus years of holiday cards, the inside of this year's holiday card to us was addressed, as always, to Drs. James + Katy Pawlowski + family.

We moved away from each other but stayed in touch with holiday cards, exchanging pictures of our families, and occasional phone calls. Invitations to visit were extended but never came to pass. Even though English was still challenging for them, they called anyway. Our conversations were upbeat no matter how serious. Sometimes they called on New Year's, Sokhom talking to Jim, Heang talking to me. And sometimes Heang called me on Mother's Day saying that my daughter reminded her of the daughter she lost in Cambodia. Not melodramatic, not looking for sympathy, just the way it was, just a point of connection between us.

One time Heang told me about being in California, in a grocery store, when she ran into her cousin, who Heang believed was long-dead. Heang, who thought she had no extended family left alive from Cambodia, was overjoyed. Life in the States was hard, but safe. Understandably, when they bought a car, it was an SUV with roll bars and was like a tank.

In spite of unimaginable loss, Heang was warm and kind. She passed away this summer, during the global covid pandemic of 2020, after a serious stroke. Sokhom called Jim a few months later to tell him of Heang's passing. Then Sokhom sent us their holiday card, only it was missing a family picture, like Heang would have sent.

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