A legacy of kindness, of empathy and the gift of a piglet has been handed down to Rebecca Ly (pictured left with her father Leang) across the generations by her grandmother.

Rebecca is in her first year of the General Practice Education Programme (GPEP) after completing her medical degree at Otago Medical School and three years as a house officer at Middlemore Hospital. Her choice of profession is no accident.

Growing up as the eldest daughter of Cambodian refugees in Manurewa, South Auckland, Rebecca remembers a happy childhood.

“I grew up in a multi-cultural community and never thought that I was that different to anyone else,” she says.

“But then I became a teenager and started to struggle to understand who I was and where I fit in. That all changed when my dad told me a story about my grandmother.”

Before the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, Rebecca’s father, Leang, lived with his family in Battambang. They had land and were able to keep animals. Each year, after their piglets had been born, Rebecca’s grandmother took Leang and travelled to some of the poor rural villages.

She would gift families in these villages two piglets and say ‘you can keep one of these piglets but you must raise the other one so I can come back when it is big enough and buy it off you.
“I am looking forward to being a GP because I really think that if I can make a difference in even just one person’s life, like my grandmother did, then that person might do the same for someone else." 

Then the civil war came, and life changed drastically. Leang and his family were driven from their homes and forced to live in the jungle with other displaced people. There they were subjected to many atrocities including starvation and forced labour. After years of suffering and having to witness the death of many loved ones including his parents, Leang decided to escape, clinging to the hope of having a better life. 

But he was caught near the border, imprisoned, and told that he was to be executed the next day.

“I can’t image what it must have been like for him,” says Rebecca. “Being in fear for your life, knowing you are going die, it must have been so scary.”


 

Then, by some miraculous twist of fate, the prison guard set Leang free. The man had been a member of one of the families Leang’s mother had given a piglet to and recognised him as the boy who had been with her.

Leang managed to cross the Cambodian border and reach a refugee camp in Thailand where he stayed for months before being sent to New Zealand, where he built a new life.

“It is such an amazing story, that my grandmother’s actions inspired kindness many years later in a man who’s job it was to kill people,” says Rebecca. “It really resonated with the teenage me. I realised that I am alive because of her and I decided that I wanted to be like her and ensure that her death and others in my family did not happen in vain.”

She did not know what career path that would lead her to, but ultimately decided that medicine offered more opportunity to be really involved in making a tangible difference to people’s lives. 

“It was also the reason I decided to enter GPEP,” she says. “Hospitals are such busy places and the patients you see are there one minute, gone the next. I really want to build relationships with my patients, to help and support them on their journey through life.”

She had the opportunity to experience this quite poignantly when she completed her trainee intern elective at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in South Auckland.

“All refugees coming to New Zealand spend six weeks at the centre receiving help to adapt into this new country and culture,” she explains. “My father came through here, and my mother Helen did too, when she left Cambodia, although they met later while working in a factory.

“I could really relate to the people I was seeing, because as each patient came through the door and I heard their individual stories, I imagined what it would have been like for my parents, my aunties, my uncles when they walked through those doors many years ago.  

“Hospitals are such busy places and the patients you see are there one minute, gone the next. I really want to build relationships with my patients, to help and support them on their journey through life.”

“I think it was nice for the patients too, because when I told them that my parents were also refugees, they could really see that New Zealand does offer them great opportunities, and life can change from the fear and hardship they had experienced.” 

She says that while she is looking forward to the various different placements she will experience during the three-year GPEP, she is keen to ultimately come back to the community she grew up in, to fulfil the legacy her grandmother gave her by showing the same empathy, kindness and generosity of spirit to her people.

“My family history has given me my identity and a purpose in life,” says Rebecca. “I am so grateful to them for what they went through to give me the opportunities they never had.

“I am looking forward to being a GP because I really think that if I can make a difference in even just one person’s life, like my grandmother did, then that person might do the same for someone else. 

“If a prison guard can set a man free because of one act of kindness, it shows what a powerful thing helping another human being can be.”