At four-years-old, Dr. Daniel Chan didn’t know what a “massacre” was.
The war-torn history of his Cambodian homeland, the politics of Pol Pot, the 1.5 million people that would die under the Khmer Rouge regime — that was all beyond him.
But starvation was easy to understand.
“We were hungry for years,” said the 42-year-old Los Alamitos doctor. He and his brothers would sometimes eat crickets, frogs, lizards, ants and even – accidentally -- plants that made them sick.
“It was hit and miss,” Chan said. “Some were OK, and some were poison.”
Driven by a sense of shared suffering, Chan, a Cerritos resident, will head back to Cambodia Feb. 20 to provide medical care to the poor and hungry who suffer just as he did.
As a young boy born and raised in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, four-year-old Chan saw the brutal Khmer Rouge regime rise to power in 1975.
“We lived through oppression,” Chan said. "I didn’t quite understand at the age of four, but over the years, it started to dawn on me that this was oppression.”
The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, forced entire urban populations to rural communities to work in agriculture. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his followers executed about 1.5 million people, according to the Seattle-based Killing Fields Museum. Members of the upper, middle and educated classes were slaughtered along with suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge.
“They were killing people, anybody they didn’t like, especially the educated and the powerful,” Chan said. “They were killed off in order to prevent any kind of uprising against (the government) … A lot of families were separated and broken. We have a lot of relatives and cousins who died, were killed.”
Though illness and starvation were widespread, Chan’s family, his parents and his three younger brothers survived. His father, a dentist, endured a time when medical professionals were killed as a matter of policy.
“I don’t know how he survived,” Chan said. “He managed to hide it.”
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime fell when the Vietnamese invaded the country, and Chan and his family fled across the border to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand.
In 1981, some of Chan’s relatives in America sponsored him and his family to enter the country. Chan lived in Long Beach, learned English and went to Long Beach Poly High School.
He received his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from California Polytechnic University in 1994 and his Medical of Doctorate from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in 1998. He finished residency in Family Medicine with Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, California.
‘Hard to forget’
But a life in America, a land with so much more than Cambodia, especially food, Chan said, hasn’t made him forget his past.
“I do remember well,” Chan said. “It’s very hard to forget … Fear, starvation, not knowing if you’re going to live the next week. Every day is a day of uncertainty. In America we say ‘live for the day’ but in Cambodia, what is that day?”
He’s not the only one who remembers.
Chan and a number of other Cambodian medical professionals banded together to form the Cambodian Health Professionals Association of America in Long Beach. The organization, which became a nonprofit in 2010, aims to provide medical humanitarian aid to the under-served in Cambodia and in America.
According to Chan, the organization has no religious or political backing, only a shared desire to help.
“I have a personal calling along with the other doctors in my group,” Chan said. “Each of us has our own differences. We have the same calling.”
Since 2001, Chan has worked at Healthcare Partners in Los Alamitos as a lead clinician and a senior partner. He enjoys skiing, playing piano, camping and leading at his church. He speaks English, medical Spanish and Cambodian.
Chan also has a soft voice, a falsetto laugh and a lot of patients. He sees about 20 to 25 people a day.
And that number’s about to go up.
Chan said he expects to work with about 50 to 60 patients a day on the aid mission to the Takeo Province of Cambodia.
From Feb. 20 through March 6, he and more than 100 medical professionals including surgeons, optometrists, nurses and pharmacists estimate they will treat about 1,000 patients a day.
Chan said his calling to help the Cambodian people stems from his belief that there’s more to life than just having a good job, car and home.
“I just feel that there has to be a purpose with what I’m doing,” Chan said. “There’s got to be a higher purpose.”
And, he said, his painful past gives him a connection to the people he hopes to support.
“I have lived on their end of persecution,” Chan said. “It inspires me to go back and offer some help.”