30 years ago the first children’s hospital was opened by Beat Richner
27 October 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the children’s hospital in Cambodia. This anniversary was the occasion for an impressive commemorative evening in the lecture hall of the Kunsthaus Zurich. The founder and good spirit of the medical centre that was being established at that time was the Swiss doctor and cellist Dr Beat Richner, with the artist's name Beatocello. As Dr iur. René Schwarzenbach emphasised in his welcome address, this commemorative event was all about honouring the work and personality of Dr Beat Richner.
Dr iur. René Schwarzenbach is the honorary president of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital Foundation in Cambodia. His great respect for Beat Richner's lifework was palpable in all his statements. When the Corona crisis led to a lack of regular visits from experts and friends for more than two years – and this after the unexpectedly early death of Beat Richner in 2018 – many were unsure whether things could continue without Beat Richner at all. They were all the happier that everything proceeded and continued as it had during his lifetime, at the same level and with the same dedication to the sick children.
The evening also provided the setting for the premiere of the touching documentary film “Who was Beat Richner?” by Georges Gachot about Beat Richner and his work. Georges Gachot was present on that evening. After winning Beat Richner's friendship, he accompanied him and his work on film since 1996. Earlier DVDs by Gachot about Richner's work are available from the Foundation (www.gachot.ch).
Many of the evening's audience were obviously of the same age as Beat Richner, who was born in Zurich on 13 March 1947. Many of them must have regularly attended the annual events and, at the time, learned many interesting facts about the structure of his great work from the first source through the explanations of Dr Richner himself. Today, much of these oral accounts can be found in Richner's books published by the NZZ publishing house. The article “Paediatrician Dr Beat Richner, Swiss of the Year 2003” in Current Concerns No 15 of 25 April 2003 reported on such a fund-raising event for the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital Foundation.
These annual events took place in all major cities in Switzerland. Today, many millions of donations still merge in Switzerland. However, the children's hospitals in Cambodia have developed so much, not least due to Beat Richner’s personal commitment, that today one third of the necessary funds (42 million per year) are raised locally in Cambodia through donations and government contributions. In these 30 years, five children's hospitals and a maternity unit have been established. In addition to their main task of serving sick children, they have become a training centre for Cambodian doctors and specialists.
An eventful and stirring biography
Beat Richner was born in Zurich and spent his youth in a well-off family as the youngest of four children. Music and education were important to him, and he also liked to perform what was close to his heart. As a young man, he performed with his cello as Beatocello to please people. He played the cello well, even then he proceeded determinedly, but not good enough for a solo career, and sitting in the orchestra pit was not for him, as we heard in the film from his sister Annaregula.
In addition to his performances as Beatocello, he immersed himself in his medical studies, which he successfully completed. He worked as a doctor in Cambodia as part of a Red Cross mission and was finally forced to flee the country at the risk of his life after the Khmer Rouge took power. He shared this fate with the ousted Prince Sihanouk. It was not until the beginning of 1991 that peace was concluded between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian government after the Vietnam War. Beat Richner decided to rebuild the children's hospital in the completely destroyed country. Just one and a half years after his arrival in Cambodia, he opened the first Kantha Bopha children’s hospital in the presence of the king, framed by his cello contribution.
Originality, energy and independence directed towards a great goal
The contemporary witnesses in the film describe Richner as a loner and rather conservative thinker. His neighbour in his youth, Peter Spring, a journalist, only became aware of him when Beat Richner, as a student, spoke out against the revolting students of the 1968s. It is expressed in the film that Beat Richner was not a rebel. He preferred to play music in the open air as Beatocello under a red umbrella, to the delight of the audience, rather than engage in rebellious verbal battles. Even then, as a student and young doctor, he focused on reconciliation and understanding rather than provocation and violence; even then he pursued a message of peace. For him, peace work was a deed, and he asked himself how one could promote more just conditions in the world.
He later pursued his deed in Cambodia: fair and just medicine. He resolutely made clear that he would not tolerate any objections to the claim that he, as a doctor in Cambodia, could also practise the same medicine that was scientifically proven and applied in wealthy countries. He vigorously opposed two-tier medicine: “No poor medicine for poor countries!” He let Switzerland and also King Sihanouk know this. He decided how something should be built. His determination always had the background of fighting for the interests of sick children.
Beat Richner wins friends and helpers for his project
Through fundraising campaigns in Switzerland, millions of Swiss francs are raised for Kantha Bopha in Cambodia. Donors with small, medium and large incomes are convinced that this relief organisation is on the right track. Crucial to the donation activity is the journalist Peter Rothenbühler. In the paediatrician's office on the Zürichberg he and his wife learn about Richner's intention to go to Cambodia to rebuild the destroyed hospital in the country. In the "Schweizer Illustrierte", as a journalist working there, he repeatedly presents this undertaking and the further course of events to a broad readership. And these contentful reports do not fail to have an impact. Equally informative is Rothenbühler's 2019 book “Dr Beat Richner, Paediatrician – Rebel – Visionary” (“Dr Beat Richner, Kinderarzt – Rebell – Visionär”), published by Verlag Schweizer Illustrierte (publisher Schweizer Illustrierte). The commitment of the National Circus Knie should also be mentioned. On the initiative of Franco Knie Junior, a gala event is held every year in favour of Kantha Bopha. In a shortened circus programme, one learns a lot of interesting facts about the development in the hospitals.
Everyone is treated for free
One can see from the film that correct medicine is practised in Kantha Bopha, which heals the children, also that the money collected is used to continue working in the sense of medical justice. Beat Richner speaks in this context of the “duty to make amends”.
Every morning the unbelievable picture: Hundreds of mothers, some of whom have travelled from far away with their often seriously ill children and are now sitting patiently close together on the floor waiting until they can present their child to the doctor. One mother sums it up: “Everyone is treated for free. At the other medical centre, we couldn’t get the medicine we needed. The toad blood we had to administer instead made our child life-threateningly ill. Now I am here and I know that I don't have to pay because I have nothing, and still my child is being helped. There is no corruption here either.” This principle of justice convinces citizens in well-off Switzerland that their donation is going to the right person.
Unswervingly, Beat Richner goes his way
Beat Richner is considered a loner, lives his own life, retreats to the same pub at lunchtime and eats alone. Wherever you find him, he is at work. He is an organiser, a builder, and discusses everything in detail with everyone involved. This is how large, simple, but sometimes highly modern, beautiful buildings come into being. Where walls are not necessary, they are omitted. There are large wards with simple beds standing close together, none of which is empty.
For many children, the mother sits at the bedside, sometimes the father too. It is quiet. The atmosphere is optimistic. Every Saturday afternoon, Dr Richner gives a concert with his cello. The cello is his constant companion, supporter and comforter. With these concerts he collects blood donations and money from the tourists. In addition, he trains Cambodian doctors and Cambodian medical staff together with specialists and demands a disciplined, goal-oriented approach from them. But he also inquires about the doctor’s well-being, whether he is tired, and learns, for example, that the last patient admission was after midnight at half past two. Then again, you see him as the “boss” gesticulating decisively with his hand, making it clear where things are going. Another time, he moves a delicate toy with his fingers to calm a fearful child's soul so that it can confidently engage in the treatment. He also finds time for this. His humour and idiosyncrasies flash up again and again in the film. In the final shot of the film, Beat Richner ponders aloud whether it would not be more economical for Switzerland to switch to a free health care system, with fair wages, and do without health and disability insurance.
He has won over many colleagues from the children's hospital and private individuals from Switzerland for annual training courses. For him, science is not a competitive object that belongs only to the chosen few – scientific knowledge is a commodity that belongs to all equally. It is a human ability to develop solid knowledge, and this knowledge is universal and not for sale. The credo that lived humanity convinces people all over the world has once again been made clear by the new film.
The work continues
Today, the work continues, even after Dr Richner's untimely death. He led the daily rapport until his illness. His relationship with his staff, including his colleagues, was distant and friendly. He separated private matters from his work. He maintained this attitude even when he showed serious signs of illness. That is how he came to be treated in Switzerland. He was laid to rest after his death on 9 September 2018. Thousands of Cambodians accompanied his urn in deepest sorrow.
The procedure he had introduced in his daily hospital routine remains the same. In a huge auditorium, the Cambodian staff, dressed in white, sit early in the morning at a joint report led by a Cambodian chief physician. The staff have a salary that allows them to feed their families, and sound professional knowledge. Disciplined and determined, everyone leaves the rapport and works responsibly and diligently. Everyone in his or her place, be it directly at the bedside or in the environment where attention to hygiene, medication order in the pharmacy and diligence in administration is needed. There is no scramble for prestige and exaggerated recognition.
Dr Beat Richner is called “Mister God” in Cambodia. This is not an expression of exaggeration, but of the great gratitude of the Cambodians for his work.
The filmmaker and the faithful companions show how a courageous Swiss man truly works for peace in our times of destruction, famine and economic crisis. He took action and openly denounced the shortcomings of international organisations, not to weaken them, but to remedy the situation so that the “First World” does not continue to cause misery through its mistakes. A scene from an earlier DVD (1999) remains unforgettable: Beat Richner sits in the corridor of one of his hospitals and sings, with great seriousness and holy indignation, with haunting accompaniment by his cello, the “Song of the Functionaries”. Functionaries and bureaucrats let valuable time pass in their daily grind when urgent action is needed, and meanwhile children die.
His work is preserved. It is evident that he has touched and strengthened people’s fellow human community-bound emotions. Where international organisations committed to the welfare of all people fail, Beat Richner acted quite independently in the spirit of compassionate, worldwide justice. Therefore, we – not only people in Cambodia – are infinitely grateful to him. •
kpk. Fellow artist and musician Franz Hohler is deeply impressed by the personality of Beat Richner, alias Beatocello, in Peter Rothenbühler’s book. Of course, he, Hohler, had not failed to notice that Beatocello, like him, had a cello as an accompanying instrument. However, there were two essential differences between them: Beat Richner was the significantly better cellist and, unlike him, he had successfully completed his studies alongside his musical performances.
He had decided on his main profession: “Later, I followed his reconstruction work in Cambodia with great attention. I had a great deal of respect for the way he followed his idea of giving children a better start in life in a country that had been completely destroyed, even before the funding was secured in the slightest. Even the fact that he was often brusquely rejected with his request, he got through all that. The cello, I thought to myself, must have been a great help to him. He played the Bach suites by heart. Or should we say internally? I played the third Bach Suite for him at the home where he was staying in Zurich after his serious illness, on my last visit. He appeared with the wheelchair, when he heard the sounds, he conducted the piece with a smile under the door. He was happy that his Bach had been brought back to him. A small conversation even ensued. When I asked him if he still often thought about Cambodia, he replied: ‘I don’t know yet.’ He waved goodbye to me.”
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