KEY LARGO -- Danielle Pech Carson traveled to her native land of Cambodia this summer for the first time since she was 11.
Carson, now 44 and a nurse at Homestead Hospital, was there for three weeks as part of Project Hope, a program that attracts medical volunteers to impoverished nations in Southeast Asia.
She enrolled in the program during her last semester of graduate study at Florida International University, where she completed nursing studies this summer. Carson is eligible to be tested and certified as a Family Nurse Practitioner.
Project Hope is part of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Partnership 2012 that forms a joint effort with civilians to tackle disease in third-world countries. Through the program, Carson joined up with the USS Mercy, which bunked her and other volunteers during the stay. Overcrowding caused some volunteers to sleep at small motels near the on-shore medical facilities.
But that discomfort could not amount to what Carson's Cambodian patients had gone through. Carson described them as the poor rice field workers who struggle to feed their families.
"The citizens will do whatever they have to survive," she said.
Her patients, mostly laborers under age 30, were treated for conditions ranging from arthritis to scabies.
"People would travel a whole day to get to treatment," she said. "Most of these workers had low back pain and hip problems."
Carson quickly began picking up on the language again by interacting with her patients.
"By the end of the trip, I was speaking fluently," she said.
As part of the humanitarian projects, Carson joined pediatricians, veterinarians and physicians delivering aid.
"It was incredible to see everyone coming together," she said.
Some patients had to be turned away because there wasn't enough time in the day, she said.
The last time Carson was in Cambodia she was escaping the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Her last memories are traveling through a jungle for three days, drinking muddy water and eating whatever she and her family could find until they arrived in Thailand. There, Carson spent weeks recovering in a refugee camp. Through a Lutheran charity group, Carson and her family came to Tallahassee.
Searching for more opportunities, Carson said her mother moved the family to California, where Carson graduated high school and married before moving to Florida to work. Part of the reason she chose Key Largo is that the weather and plants best resembles Cambodia.
Much of the trip back to Cambodia was very emotional for Carson, including meeting some of her cousins for the first time.
"I could remember the smell and sounds the most," she said of her homeland.
Carson wants to take her two elementary-age children to Cambodia soon.
"It would be better if they were a little older," she said.
Cambodia, Carson explains, remains politically corrupt but things have gotten better.
"Business is very good," she said. "Things are being built."
Carson said she didn't mind missing her graduation ceremony to explore Cambodia, including the ancient temples and the nation's major cities.
She said she plans on participating in Project Hope again.