'This is what God wants me to do': Meet the Mandurah medical scientist saving Cambodian lives

Robyn has helped to save many lives in Cambodia by setting up testing for haematological disorders. Photo: Claire Sadler.
Robyn has helped to save many lives in Cambodia by setting up testing for haematological disorders. Photo: Claire Sadler.

It was the day after Robyn Devenish decided to become Christian when she experienced her epiphany.

At the time Robyn was working at the Royal Perth Hospital as a senior medical officer when she received an email from someone who needed help in a lab in Cambodia.

"I remember thinking this is what God wants me to do," says Robyn, the passionate volunteer scientist.

"I sent an email saying I am interested and they wrote back and said 'are you the answer to our prayers?' - I still get goosebumps about it."

Packing her bags in 2001, Robyn arrived in Cambodia thinking she would only be there for a year but little did she know she would continue to work there for more than 10 years.

"When I started to see the situation there I was absolutely horrified," she said.

"When I saw some of the labs and hospitals I actually wept because they were so awful and the poor lab staff were using all manual methods."

Robyn Devenish began volunteering at Angkor Hospital for Children in 2001. Photo: Supplied.

Robyn Devenish began volunteering at Angkor Hospital for Children in 2001. Photo: Supplied.

Cambodia was still struggling to recover from the Khmer Rouge regime that decimated the country in the late 70s, targeting the educated for torture and execution.

"Their whole lab systems, doctors, and hospitals were all destroyed - I went in 2001 and they still hadn't really recovered and they still haven't even today," Robyn said.

"There were lots of things wrong in the lab as far as quality and there were many lab tests that they weren't doing so a lot of patients were being wrongly diagnosed."

Robyn began to see there was no local knowledge of haematological disorders, with many children dying due to health issues such as thalassemia, and haemophilia.

I remember thinking this is what God wants me to do

Medical scientist Robyn Devenish

To minimise misdiagnosis, she set up testing for bleeding disorders, trained the lab staff and doctors, instilled quality control in labs, raised over $500,000 for lab upgrades, set up the Cambodia Haemophilia Association, and to top it off, saved hundreds of lives.

Despite saving so many lives, her very first case of treating haemophilia has stuck with her forever.

Robyn's first case of haemophilia was a boy with crippling swelling in his knee. Photo: Supplied.

Robyn's first case of haemophilia was a boy with crippling swelling in his knee. Photo: Supplied.

"Three months after I set up the testing for bleeding disorders a young boy came in with this massive knee the size of a football," she said.

"The surgeon thought it was osteomyelitis and I had to almost have a punch up with him to say don't operate it could be haemophilia and we tested and sure enough it was.

"It's a genetic disorder that boys get and if they get cut they just won't stop bleeding so if they went through with the operation he would've died."

Robyn receiving her OAM from WA governor Kim Beazley. Photo: Supplied.

Robyn receiving her OAM from WA governor Kim Beazley. Photo: Supplied.

Now back in Mandurah due to COVID-19 restrictions, Robyn continues to help the lab staff in Cambodia via email and has begun teaching young women STEM at Peel Bright Minds.

Read more profile stories:

For her never-ending list of volunteer work, Robyn was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June "for service to the international community of Cambodia".

She also recently received a STEM Hero Award from Peel Bright Minds to acknowledge her volunteer work not only in Cambodia but her efforts locally to make a difference.