Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who opened a network of children’s hospitals in Cambodia at a time when quality health care was all but non-existent in that country, died Sept. 9 in Zurich. He was 71.
His death was confirmed by Dr. Denis Laurent, his long-time deputy director at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals in Cambodia. No cause was given. Dr. Richner had been treated for a degenerative brain disease.
He arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in 1992 to take over a 60-bed pediatric hospital in a country ravaged by civil war during the Khmer Rouge era, mired in poverty and rife with corruption.
His facility became known as the Angel Hospital because it treated anyone, no matter how poor, while providing care at a level many did not believe possible in Cambodia.
Through fundraising and fierce advocacy, he gradually turned the building into a network of five medical centres in two cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They now treat about one million patients a year.
Dr. Richner, whose motto was “One child, one life,” was beloved by many Cambodians, who saw his devotion to patient care as a corrective to their government’s failures in helping the sick.
But he could be irascible and uncompromising, and often clashed with international public-health experts, some of whom found his efforts ego-driven and unsustainable.
In one instance, he took out newspaper advertisements accusing the World Health Organization of “passive genocide,” saying it emphasized adhering to rules and protocols over saving lives. He dared the organization to donate its entire annual budget to create 200 of his hospitals around the world. (It did not.)
“For a poverty-stricken child who needs to be healed and saved, the theoretical and ideological question of sustainability that the experts in their offices are concerned about is absolutely meaningless,” Dr. Richner wrote in 1998.
He had almost no personal life or interests outside of medicine, with one exception: He moonlighted as a cellist, giving performances as an alter ego named Beatocello, whom he described as “a poetic and musical comedian or clown.”
Dr. Richner worked 12 hours a day, took no vacations and drove a 22-year-old car. He used a corner table at the hospital canteen as his office, meeting with staff there as he ate his customary breakfast of two hard-boiled eggs and a cup of coffee. For lunch, he would eat the same fare in the same spot before embarking on his hospital rounds. At 3:30 p.m., he would practice music.
Today, the streets outside Kantha Bopha’s main hospital in Phnom Penh are typically mobbed with parents seeking treatment for their children, who have often travelled hours from the countryside in crowded vans. Some children arrive attached to IV poles or plastered with menthol patches as a stopgap fever remedy. The crowds are so thick that traffic police are posted outside to maintain order.
Beat Richner was born in Zurich on March 13, 1947. By his own account, after receiving his medical degree in 1973 and working at the Zurich Children’s Hospital for a year, he was asked by the Swiss Red Cross to travel to Cambodia on a relief mission in 1974.
There, he treated children at a hospital called Kantha Bopha, named for a Cambodian princess who had died of leukemia as a toddler.
At the time, the country was in the grip of a civil war between the U.S.-backed regime of Cambodian General Lon Nol and Communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge.
On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces swept into Phnom Penh and overthrew the government, ushering in a nearly four-year period of repressive agrarian communism. The new regime destroyed the country’s medical system and systematically targeted intellectuals, including doctors, for execution. Most members of the medical staff at Kantha Bopha were killed.
Dr. Richner fled the country, returned to Switzerland and established a pediatric practice, but he never forgot his time in Cambodia. In 1992, after a peace treaty had been signed between the warring factions, he returned and was asked by Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihanouk, to help restore the Kantha Bopha.
After his death, the government announced a week-long period of mourning, then extended it by 100 days because so many people wished to pay respects.
Chin Rasopanhaka was among them. At a shrine inside Kantha Bopha, she lit an incense stick and bowed before a portrait of Dr. Richner. She was there for a follow-up appointment for her 19-month-old daughter, Somonia, who had been hospitalized with tuberculosis.
“What I have heard about him is that he was very generous – he helped Cambodian children, no matter whether they were rich or poor, and he helped us for free,” she said. “And when we came, we left the hospital completely cured.”
At the altar, the hospital’s staff had placed some familiar items: two hard-boiled eggs and a cup of coffee.