The burlap bag landed with a meaty thump into the back of the Safe Haven pickup truck and began convulsing. Roza had just paid 15,000 Riel and 10 fish hooks for a sack full of bullfrogs. He untied the sack and yanked out one hearty fellow to inspect the merchandise while Jess regaled me with tales of frogs on a stick at market for snacks that are skinned, but still twitching. Roza proclaimed the frog “nice and full of eggs” before stuffing the unfortunate amphibian back inside the bag and tying it shut for our bumpy ride to Chammbeak’s house. I stared dubiously at the sack. We were going to be out in Sen Sok all day visiting Safe Haven kids and the temperature was already climbing well above the requirements to pre heat an oven for roasted frog. Roza assured me it was okay, that even if some of the frogs died, they would still be fresh once we got home later that afternoon. I suspect my idea of “fresh” and Roza’s are two completely different things.
Sen Sok province is about an hour and a half north of Siem Reap province. We have five Safe Haven kids located in more remote villages in this area, which is difficult to reach, even with the truck. In particular, during rainy season, when the roads tend to wash away. Rainy season, which is suppose to be at least a month off, didn’t get the memo from Mother Earth and we’ve had some torrential downpours the last few days. It makes getting to Chammbeak’s house somewhat of a challenge. Roza idles a few moments in front of a washed out section with particular deep ruts and I begin to mentally picture myself trying to push us out of it. Roza babies the pick up slowly through and all the inhabitants of the truck (with the exception of the frogs) cheer our success.
Our first stop of the day had been little Boreak’s house. Boreak is one of our tougher cases. Autistic and suffering from seizures, he cannot self care and his condition is a huge stress on his mother. His seizures have been difficult to get under control. The current medication we are trying has not stopped them completely but he is on the maximum dosage allowed for his size. The side effects are taking a toll. His mother lets us know he is constantly fatigued and he has lost weight from a disinterest in food. Jess notes his heart rate and blood pressure are also slow and low. Boreak is due to come to the hospital with us on Friday so the timing could not be better. A new medication may be needed. His mother has some other concerns on her mind. She tells us her heart is not well. She has bouts where it races very fast and she cannot catch her breath and it scares her. She went to a local clinic that told her that her heart is “getting bigger.” They told her she must takes pills they gave her to live. Jess is suspicious since they don’t really have any diagnostic equipment or expertise and asks to see the pills. They are unlabeled and came with no instructions. They also look suspiciously like aspirin and a multi vitamin and the clinic is charging this woman $75 a month for them, which she cannot afford. Jess checks her vitals which seem normal and strong and we ask her when the heart racing first started. She tells us it began when her son got sick and happens when she worries about him. It also now happens when she is low on money and cannot afford the ‘heart’ medicine. It all points towards anxiety attacks brought on by the worry about her son but we don’t want to take any chances until we investigate further. Jess tells her to continue taking her meds but asks for a sample of each pill so she can suss out what she may be taking. Roza spends some time reassuring her and encouraging her to try and not be stressed but that is a tall order when you have a disabled son, have been told you have heart condition and no money for medications and have to deal with the fifty neighbors that have shown up and invited themselves inside to sit and listen to everything we are saying.
Next up was 7 year old Veng Von and 4 year old Phanchai, whose families are both neighbors and the purveyors of frogs for all your dining needs. As with Boreak’s house, it apparently takes a village to have a visit so in no time at all, there are about a dozen kids and random adults all hanging out at Veng Von’s where there is a cement red table under a small overhang. Veng is wearing his leg brace after surgery to correct his backwards knee last fall and is walking with significantly less difficulty. Phanchai has not had any seizures for at least 6 months. Both families are doing rather well and the kids are healthy so this is more of a social visit to let the families know we are there if they need us.
It’s some distance between houses in the various villages in Sen Sok and Roza helps us pass the time with his own version of Food Network, Khmer style. Having fully educated me on which frogs have tasty eggs and which ones will kill you, he points out large fields with rows of strange contraptions consisting of lights with thin electrified wire running between them and a small trench of water situated underneath. Apparently, this is cricket harvesting equipment. The lamps attracts said cricket, who hops towards the light and promptly electrocutes himself on the wire. The cricket then falls into the vat of salted water where they float until being scooped out the next morning, all nicely brined and ready for market. Fried cricket is actually kinda tasty and now I know where that salty infusion comes from. I do like learning new things…
Our last stop of the day is at 10 year old Ly Sa’s house. She is one of our newest Safe Haven kids. Radically undersized and malnourished, she looks about 4 years old and was only 22 pounds when we first took her into the program. She has been in and out of the hospital as my Safe Haven team has been working to help her gain weight. She is on a special diet to bolster her health which includes a soy liquid supplement that we are providing the family. We’ve brought a three month supply with us today and Jess is VERY pleased to see she has gained several pounds since her last weigh in. Although she is still very small, she is looking healthy and no longer critical. She also suffers from some type of chromosomal abnormality but we are not sure exactly what is wrong with her. She does not communicate in words and spends much of her time swinging and napping in a hammock. She is prone to lots of laughter and a sweet smile if you swing her or tickle her belly. Her older sister does both and Ly Sa shrieks with delight.
Word has spread that we are there and two children are brought to us for assistance. The first is a 17 month old girl named Min. Her issue becomes readily apparent. Every 5-7 seconds, her head jerks backwards involuntarily. She cannot sit up or stand on her own, which is not a surprise given the violent, repetitive motion of her head. Localized seizure? Neuromuscular tic? Whatever it is, it dominates every waking minute of both the child’s life and her mother’s life. They live nearly 4 hours away but have come to Sen Sok to see us. We agree to take her to the hospital with us on Friday but unless the parents commit to traveling that great distance every time she has a medical appointment, there is not much we can promise them . She lives too far away for us to be able to do our normal at home interventions. The second boy is 12. His parents are in Thailand looking for work and he and his older brother are on their own. His hands and feet have erupted in red, swollen, scabbed and infected bumps. The skin is also flaking like a snake skin and has a strange white cast to it. Jess takes photos in the hopes we can share it with other health care professionals and see if anyone has any insight. In the meanwhile, we set him up with some antibiotic topical cream and hope for the best.
The clouds are rolling in so we hustle to the truck in hopes of beating the rain back to Siem Reap. Roza gets turned around on all the pitted side roads and we are momentarily paralyzed with indecision at a fork in the road wondering which way we are suppose to go. We opt for the road that actually vaguely resembles one. It’s been a long day, both for us and the frogs in the sack. Roza peeks in to check on their welfare and the results are less than promising. Many are not so fresh anymore. Lacking any cricket based salty preserves and facing another hour on the road to get back into Siem Reap, Roza finally concedes that he might have to alter his cuisine preparations and simply deep fry the suckers to cover up any shortcomings in the flavor after 6 hours in a burlap sack in the sun. Jess whispers reassurances that she will be serving me pasta for dinner at her house tonight. With a generous glass (or two) of wine.