I don’t know how to say “not a chance” in Khmer so I settle for trying to get the feeling across in my facial expression, the same one I suspect I had the first time someone plopped a big plate of fried tarantulas in front of me on a previous trip to Cambodia. The lady trying to sell me a pink flowered Hello Kitty protective helmet looks incredulous that I want a man’s black helmet instead. I use the word protective here loosely. I suspect if this helmet actually had a DOT sticker, here it would stand for “Doesn’t Obstruct Trauma”. The plastic casing is egg shell thin. I eyeball it dubiously and apply a little pressure with my hands to the sides . It creaks alarmingly and I cease and desist before I crack the damn thing.
The sales lady will not let go of the idea of seeing me off on the back of my project manager Roza’s souped up motorbike with that pink Hello Kitty helmet. She tries to convince me it is a better bargain because it is only $7 and the black helmet is $13. This does nothing to reassure me that said helmet will do anything in the way of protecting my skull. As much as I like my head where it is, I decide I like it better without a pink hello kitty mini cranium coffin.
At the very least, my newly acquired helmet has a face guard which is helpful in keeping the dust from my eyes. Instead, I have a crystal clear view moments later when we swing back into traffic on our way out of town and almost get sandwiched between two trucks. In short order, however, we’ve left the city and the paved roads behind on our way to the villages in the Balang Commune.
Roza is the project manager of Safe Haven’s outreach program. Last November, I had him start traveling into the villages to create a census of all the children with disabilities. Even though Safe Haven is not yet built, it will take time to find the kids deep in these remote villages and develop a relationship and level of trust with their families as well as their village chiefs. In fact, without the cooperation of the village chief, finding the kids is even more impossible. Unfortunately, some chiefs don’t want to admit they have what they term “unlucky” children in their village. Changing minds through education about these wonderful kids is one of our biggest challenges.
For the next few days, Roza and I will be visiting the kids in our outreach program. Although Roza has been giving me detailed reports on each child, it will help to meet them in person and get a clearer picture of what each child’s challenges are.
My current challenge is just getting into these villages. Thank God for our motocross style bike because the roads into the village are like an X Games obstacle course. We fish tail, swerve, jump over large bumps and cut our way through switchback paths. My helmet at the very least has kept me from thwaping my head on any number of low hanging branches. As we approach one child’s house I spot a rickety “bridge” over a fairly deep gully made out of loose bamboo poles and have just enough time to say “oh, SHIT” before Roza rattles across it. ‘Bamboo often breaks’ he explains, ‘Best to just speed across it.’ Good times.
Faces I have only seen in pictures start to come alive for me. And with these real encounters come some real highs and lows. Little Lo Lith, struggling with both CP and heart problems drags himself along the ground with his hands and his body is swollen from edema. His mother looks exhausted. We find out her husband has just died from TB. She knows she is suppose to give Lo Lith his medication every day but she sometimes just forgets while trying to care for her other children and now with her husband gone, so is the only source of income. A few huts over TB has also struck little Neang’s family. He is a shy little boy with CP. Although his muscle tone is very weak and he cannot stand on his own, he can sit up for brief periods and hold up his head. His mother has just been diagnosed with TB and is glowing with a fever when we arrive. Fever blisters crack her lips and she asks us for advice on how to get better. Her husband thrusts the medicines she was given by the local clinic in my hands. It’s a 2 week course of antibiotics. From experience, I know that the most basic TB treatment includes several different antibiotics and they must be taken for a least 9 months to a year. However, the clinic doesn’t truly have the ability to treat her. I am not sure what to say, I am not a doctor but Roza tells me the best we can do is simply show we care and give her advice. Feeling completely inadequate, I look her in the eyes and tell her to drink lots of water. As I do, I wonder if they even have a well. I tell her how important it is that she not skip or sell any of her pills, a practice that is very common here. We also give her Tylenol for her pain and all the clean water we have with us. None of this is going to save her. Roza tells me I have made her feel better. I certainly haven’t made myself feel better.
Despite the harsh realities of what I am seeing, there are also wonderful moments that remind me exactly why I am working to get Safe Haven built. The family of Sona, a 5 year old boy and Reaska, his 7 year old aunt are happy to see Roza and welcome me enthusiastically. They are hoping I can tell them what is wrong with their sweet kids. Roza is very familiar with CP but did not know what was wrong with these kids, though he tried to describe to me what their symptoms were. The kids come over with shy smiles. They both have Down Syndrome, which I recognize right away. Like Cerebral Palsy, there is not a diagnosis for Down Syndrome in Cambodia. I explain to Roza and the parents about Down Syndrome. They ask if it happens everywhere or just in Cambodia. Both of the kids are bright and want to go to school but they learn more slowly than other kids, have difficulty speaking and have some memory issues and are not allowed to go. I haul out my Ipad which I have loaded with Khmer word games. I have been using it in the villages to test the kids cognitive skills. Both Sona and Reaska love the games and do very well. If they could go to school, they would be able to excel. I can’t wait to get Safe Haven built so they will have a place to reach their full potential.
Hav Samnang is 14 . He also has CP and is severely spastic in both his arms and legs. His hands sometimes clench so tightly his father tells us, that he cuts himself. His father clearly loves his son. He has no idea what is wrong with him but every day tries to help him move his clenched arms and legs. He also built him a wheelchair out of scrap wood and uses bandanas to strap his son upright in the homemade chair. Although his body is twisted, Samnamg’s mind is sharp. I hunker down next to him and introduce myself. “Knyom chmouss Heather.” He smiles hugely and says clear as a bell “Heather!”. He is a talkative kid and problem solves in his head since he can’t use his body. He loves the Ipad games though he has trouble controlling his clenched arm and hand to use the touch screen properly. His father thinks a place that his son could go to school sounds like a dream. I think of my own little Sum Namg who is the reason this dream will eventually be a reality.
Roza and I manage to see 20 kids in 3 days and as we finally head back to the hotel for the last time I feel as if I’ve pulled every muscle in my body riding around on the motto on these remote back roads non stop. As I am imagining a hot bath and possibly a really long massage, Roza swerves off the road and heads down a narrow path next to a dried up river. I quickly see the reason for the detour. A huge part of the road has been washed away. I am more than happy to take the detour right up until I see another bridge. Another bamboo bridge. This one stretches on forever. I am fatally sure I am going to tumble right off this child’s stick model suspension bridge and the egg shell thin helmet and my head are both going to crack wide open. Roza is revving the engine waiting for the two girls with their bicycle to come across since it is too narrow for both of us. It takes them forever. Why? Because this thing is L.O.N.G. That spells long.
After the longest and shortest five minutes of my life, the girls and their bike are across. I am mentally trying to calculate how much more we weigh when Roza, apparently ascribing to that whole ‘ripping the band aid off’ style of thinking, pops the clutch and roars forward. I clench my teeth in an effort to keep from A. biting my tongue or B. screaming in Roza’s ear. Neither of which will likely help him concentrate on the task at hand. Fortunately, God must have other plans for me because we make it across. It is with some relief we make it to the hotel and I climb off the bike and take off my helmet.
I promptly drop it on the ground and it cracks.