“It is possible!”

On the life’s work of Beat Richner

by Erika Vögeli

In Beat Richner, we all lose a great man, a wonderful ambassador of humanitarian Switzerland, an independent thinker and indomitable fighter for the recognition of the right of every human being to receive the correct medical treatment as necessary, without any curtailment. “I am bound to my conscience”1 he once wrote, because the plight of children in a poor country, destroyed by war and tyranny, touched him, prompted him to act and do something. He actually has done it – devotedly, perseveringly, with tenacious persistence, as “the life of a child is a universe”, and in poor countries the death of a child is not easier to accept, “the relationship of the mother to the child is the most precious human contact everywhere in the world. And a breakaway of this closest contact, a violation of the closest trust that people can have with each other, inflicts the same unspeakable pain everywhere.” And: “There is nothing more than living in life”. In these sentences one senses a little of what Beat Richner gave the strength to take up again the fight with the daily demands, with himself and the adversities of the situation and all the obstacles that were put in his way every day: as a doctor, as a fundraiser, as an instructor, as a director of hospitals, as a “hut warden who takes care of discipline and hygiene” and as a “policeman who fights against corruption”.2

(picture Keystone)

His life’s work

Beat Richner, born on 13 March 1947, completed his education as a paediatrician in 1973. And he liked being it: “I indeed love my profession as a paediatrician and in next life I would choose the same.”
He also cultivated his beloved cello playing: His debut as “Beatocello”, as a cello-playing musician and music clown, he gave at the Polyball in 1967 (the annual ball at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich). It was followed by further performances, and from 1972 onwards the Swiss cabaret artist and actor Roland Rasser regularly engaged him in his Theater am Spalenberg in Basel. At that time, he didn’t know that this would help him to spread his message and to support his objectives one day.
In 1974/75 Beat Richner worked as a doctor and leader of a mission of the Swiss Red Cross in the children’s hospital Kantha Bopha in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The invasion of the Khmer Rouge brought this commitment to an abrupt end and forced Beat Richner to return to Switzerland, where he first resumed his position at the Zurich Children’s Hospital. In 1980, together with a colleague, he opened his own surgery in Zurich.
After the war, the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge and civil war, a ceasefire was finally reached in June 1991, followed by the Paris Peace Treaty of 23 October 1991. The King and the transitional government of Cambodia turned to Beat Richner and asked him to rebuild the children’s hospital in Phnom Penh (then with a capacity of 68 beds) and take over its management. With a heavy heart he left his paediatric surgery in Zürich and travelled to Cambodia. He had no idea at the time that the work would last for so many years.
The rebuilt Kantha Bopha I hospital was inaugurated in 1992 by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the Head of the UN Interim Administration Mission for Cambodia. In 1993, another building with surgery, two operating rooms and three departments was converted and commissioned. In 1994, another adjacent building was converted into a large critical care unit with two further departments.
In 1995 the laying of the foundation stone for Kantha Bopha II took place – the first hospital was already completely overloaded with over 1000 outpatients every day and 350 hospitalisations. King Norodom Sihanouk offered land of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for this purpose. Kantha Bopha II was inaugurated on 12 October 1996, again with King Sihanouk and this time Federal President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz.
The third hospital opened on 31 March 1999 in Siemreap, near the temple of Angkor – a tourist attraction where Beat Richner used to play the cello and collected donations… As in the first hospitals, the treatment is free of charge for every child. It includes a large outpatients station and extensive facilities to care for hospitalised children as well as for the correct treatment of very serious sick children. The construction and design of the new Jayavarman VII hospital (Kantha Bopha III) reflect seven years of experience with the hospitals in Phnom Penh. As the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital Foundation Dr Beat Richner writes, it could serve worldwide as a model for the construction and organisation of hospitals being run under similar conditions.
In 2000 in Jayavarman VII, a pediatric surgery and a computer tomograph were inaugurated, followed in 2001 by the inauguration of a maternity hospital to help prevent the transmission of maternal HIV infection to the child, and in 2002 by the establishment of a conference and training centre. Since 2002, Beat Richner has given a concert there every week on Saturday – until 2009 already more than 500 concerts, which brought in five to eight million dollars in donations annually. In 2005, Jayavarman VII was expanded again, so that another 350 beds are available there.
When Kantha Bopha I had become not only too small, but also in urgent need of renovation in 2004, the construction of Kantha Bopha IV began, inaugurated in December 2005. While one building could continue to be used by Kantha Bopha I, the other two were renewed. The new hospital has 555 beds, 4 operating rooms, 2 intensive care units, a fully equipped laboratory with a blood bank, a department with an X-ray machine, 4 ultrasonic machines and a computer tomograph, a large pharmacy, a ward for outpatients and a prevention centre. The costs for all this could be covered not least thanks to the “Zwänzgernötli” campaign (frequent donations using a banknote of 20 Swiss francs), which was supported by numerous schoolchildren and people from all over Switzerland.
Soon this hospital was no longer able to cope with the rush of sick children – in 2006 the number of small patients who had to be hospitalised increased by 50 per  cent. The Foundation therefore decided to build Kantha Bopha V, which was ready for use at the end of 2007. The cost of the nine 34-bed units, the prevention centre, the prevention ward, X-ray and ultrasonic equipment, fluoroscopy, laboratories, conference rooms and medical library amounted to nine million US dollars. In 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014, four extensions of Jayavarman VII followed.
The excellent medical training provided at the hospitals where the majority of Cambodian doctors are trained is also indispensable. Beat Richner emphasised the fact that the staff of the clinics comes in all areas primarily from Cambodia: At the end of 2017, the Foundation employed “around 2500 local staff in the five hospitals. In addition to Dr Peter Studer as Head of Kantha Bopha Hospitals (CEO and Vice President), Dr Denis Laurent (COO and French-Cambodian dual citizen) is the only foreign employee working for the Foundation in Cambodia. And all this with the best ratio of costs and cure rate in the world. “Kantha Bopha is corruption-free, an island of justice and social peace in Cambodia.”3

A model – not only for poor countries

As the Foundation points out, Kantha Bopha has become a “highly respected model for all of Southeast Asia. It shows how effective direct medical and humanitarian aid – i.e. correct medicine that is not hindered by corruption, combined with targeted education in long-term – can be, both in treatment and preventive medicine and in research”. By 2017, 16.3 million outpatients and over 1.9 million seriously ill or injured children had been hospitalised. Countless children saw the light of day there, and many more were given a “tomorrow”, as it says in a song in the touching mourning video (posted on the Foundation’s homepage)4.
These are only the external facts of an immense human achievement. One can bow one’s thanks and take note of what compassionate human feeling, sense of righteousness, and unshakeable human determination are capable of. Sometimes Beat Richner has been reproached of being uncompromising and lacking diplomacy. But his conviction that medical help must not be made dependent on poverty and wealth, and that proper medicine for all without exception is an imperative to respect human dignity, which doesn’t tolerate compromise. And that is a good thing. Without this conviction he wouldn’t have been Beat Richner, and without it Kantha Bopha wouldn’t exist either. Because without this inner indomitableness he would hardly have had the strength to continue working despite of all international organisations and numerous official bodies, which rejected all this as a “luxury”, but also of the indolence of the rich in Cambodia and the permanent struggle for the financial survival of this work. Of course, there were also companions and supporters from the beginning: Doctors and other specialists who joined in and jumped in again when he fell ill, the “Schweizer Illustrierte” (a Swiss magazine), which accompanied the project from the beginning and again and again called for donations, the annual gala performance of the circus Knie and the Swiss population and economy, which kept loyal to Beat Richner with their donations over all the years and chose him as the first “Swiss of the Year”. Meanwhile the Cambodian government doubled its contribution to 6 million in 2016 and since 2017, 2 dollars taken from the per entry-fee into the famous temples of Angkor Wat generate an additional 5 to 6 million dollars. Private donations are also increasing in Cambodia, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) continues to contribute 4 million Swiss francs a year. But it was not easy. In 2017, more than half of the budget was again covered by donations from Switzerland. “Begging” was hard. Beat Richner asks himself in his 2009 book titled Ambassador: “A dream that paid off? Yes, quite certainly, it was and is worth it, but also a dream that could have been dreamed of more easily if the rich and powerful had been more human. It was hard. And it’s still hard today.” (translated by Current Concerns – p 105)
But we must not keep it with having good wishes and admiration for Beat Richner: This work can be honoured, on the one hand, by granting it the international respect and support it deserves – and by the fact that the Swiss population, many individuals with larger or smaller purses, continue to provide their silent but so far clear and constant support and arouse and cultivate the sympathy and respect for this achievement among future generations. It is the least we can do. Especially young people can be encouraged by his example: “It is possible” as he once put it – human compassion coupled with inner strength and energy can move mountains. Beat Richner showed us how – there are many places and opportunities to follow his example.    •


1    Richner, Beat. Ambassador. Zwischen Leben und Überleben. Zürich 2009. (Translation here: Current Concerns). An English version of the book is available via www.beat-richner.ch/Assets/richner_infomaterial.html: Ambassador. Between Life and Survival. Zürich 2010 (ISBN: 978-3-907668-81-8)
2    cf. Schweizer Illustrierte online, 09 September 2018
3    Jahresbericht 2017 der Stiftung (Annual Report of the Foundation, deutsch) : http://www.beat-richner.ch/pdf/Jahresberichte/Jahresbericht2017/Jahresbericht2017D.pdf#page=8&zoom=auto,741,672 (Translation Current Concerns)
4    www.beat-richner.ch

Dear Sirs,

It is with great pain that I have received the information of Doctor Beat Richner’s death. I would like to extend to you and to his whole family and those who are dearest to him, my deepest condolences.

Doctor Beat Richner has become a national Cambodian hero since he founded the hospitals Kantha Bopha in Phnom Penh in 1992, and then in Siemreap as well where, since more than twenty years, thousand of children have been born and millions of others have been treated with devotion and love. “Beatocello” will forever remain engraved in the hearts of the Cambodians for whom he has been an angel of providence.
 
His Highness, the King-Father Norodom Sihanouk and myself have much affection and admiration for Doctor Richner.

May his soul rest in peace.

Please accept the expression of my highest respect,

NORODOM MONINEATH SIHANOUK

Beijing, 12 September 2018

(Translation Current Concerns)