Born in Cambodia, Rethy Chhem aspired for France to study medicine. However, his father, insisting on fairness to each of his six children, sent Chhem instead to medical school in Phnom Penh.
After the military coup in 1970, Chhem, like all medical students, became exempt from national service, but worked in hospitals under frequent attack, where doctors should be armed and ready to shoot.
During the civil war, Rethy Chhem’s father was killed and. Chhem however continued through his degree. In 1975, with the Khmer Rouge uprising, Chhem escaped to France, on the last commercial flight to Paris before the Khmer Rouge closed down Phnom Penh airport.
Chhem began his life as a refugee in Montpellier, working in a restaurant to pay for his education, finally receiving his degrees in medicine from the University of Paris VI, and in radiology from University of Paris V. Chhem aspired reach professorship. He obtained a scholarship at the University of California, San Francisco, leading to a junior professorship in Sherbrooke University, Quebec, Canada. Following this, Chem moved to McGill University, where he studied the use of ultrasound in musculoskeletal diseases. His first book, Guidelines and Gamuts in Musculoskeletal Ultrasound, was published soon after.
Rethy Chhem now leads an international educational initiative at IAEA, as a humanist whose life experiences have instilled in Rethy the idea that knowledge and pervades all boundaries.