Dolores (Dee) Angleton, 48, is a professional disaster nurse, a veteran of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. But as she recalls the three months she spent in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, her voice struggles with emotion.
"This is an experience that will remain with me most of my life," said the 20-year Red Cross volunteer from Rockville.
Angleton returned recently from Thailand, where she helped care for the thousands of Cambodians seeking refuge in Thailand. Hundreds of volunteers from several countries responded to the International Red Cross call for aid, leaving friends and family for primitive quarters in one of Thailand's largest refugee camps -- Khao I Dang.
Angleton said she expected the many cases of infectious disease and malnutrition she saw, but that the number of battle casualties took her by surprise.
"I don't think anyone understood that the shooting was as extensive as it was," she explained, adding that she could often hear the rumble of artillery.
At one point, she became the camp's "amputation specialist" in the post-operative ward, helping young children fight infection and learn to walk on bamboo crutches.
"Our young people would think that their lives were over. (The Cambodians) accept it as another daily hardship and say 'This is the way it's going to be,'" said Angleton.
"Then you saw them walk again, laugh again," she recalls. "I don't think I'll ever forget that."
During her stay, Angleton lived in a thatched-roof hut, her narrow cot shrouded with mosquito netting. During the day she screened children and adults and directed them to the facility where they could get treatment.
"We could write some episodes for 'MASH'," she said.
The decision to interrupt her life to go to Thailand came from a deep belief in professional duty, Angleton said.
"I think most nurses choose to work in a field where their skills are needed. We work for an inner satisfaction rather than pay," she said.
"Textbooks were like Bibles to our Cambodian helpers . . . They were all dogeared by the time we left," she added.
Angleton described her experiences to a small gathering of Montgomery County Red Cross volunteers and administrators Sunday at a fund-raising brunch. By the end of April, the chapter hopes to raise at least $200,000 to fund its health-related community programs.
She told the story of the "bucket baby," a 2-year-old child who had been carried in a bucket on its father's shoulder since birth. When the malnourished child was brought to the camp, volunteers discovered that it had never learned to walk.
"The baby's mother was dead or missing," Angleton recalled. "Once its strength came back, it began to crawl . . . It was a great experience."
Few of Angleton's friends were surprised by her decision to go to Thailand.
"She's that type of person. If there's something she can do, she'll do it," said Paulette Geer, director of nursing and health services for the Montgomery County Red Cross. Geer had worked in Pennsylvania with Angleton, caring for flood victims.
"It wasn't alien to my family to have their crazy mother pick up and leave for weeks," said Angleton, whose husband is the disaster chairman for the Montgomery County Red Cross chapter. "My family was most concerned about my safety or my health."
Before her trip to Thailand, Angleton had retired from a nursing position at Suburban Hospital. She is still active, teaching disaster courses at area colleges and elsewhere.
"Collectively, we made a big difference," she says with conviction of the medical workers in the refugee camps. "While I'm not there, others are working . . . But they've got a lot of work to do yet."