Rat. The Other White Meat.

Posted on January 17, 2012

The mighty hunter clutched his sling shot in one grimy hand and gave me a big toothy smile.  Dancing around the dirt floor near the wagon where his sister Sao sat, both her legs in casts, he demonstrated how he pulled back on the band of the sling and bagged his prey, the fearsome field rat.

Mr. Rat was lying in repose next to two toy cars and a pile of school books, with a jaunty piece of red ribbon peeking out from underneath his burial pose.  Sao was supremely indifferent to sharing the wagon with the deceased and was more interested in my sun glasses.  She delighted in the pictures I took of her wearing them and gave me a resounding high five.  I grinned back, thought of all the times I have been invited to dinner by my families in the villages and prayed this would NOT be one of those moments.  Jess, my practical nurse, muses over the protein levels in rats and I serious consider the merits of becoming a temporary vegan.

We are out in Trach village following up on three of our Safe Haven kids.  Three months ago, Sao had radical surgery to correct her bilateral club feet.  First undergoing a painful procedure to lengthen her Achilles Tendons that left Frankstein like pins sticking out of her ankles.  The pins were turned each day.  Then my friend and exceptional orthopedic pediatric surgeon Matt Bernstein performed the surgery to correct the deformed bones during a 4 day volunteer surgical rotation in Cambodia.  Matt said Sao’s club feet were the worse he had ever seen.

Sao went home with full length casts on both legs but last week the casts were cut down below her knees to create “walking” casts.  Her father proudly told us she was starting to be able to bear  weight and walk a few steps and Roza, my project manager, lifted her out of the wagon (and away from the nasty, stiff rat) and set her on the ground.  Sao grasped a large wooden stick for a little extra support and shuffled a few steps.  We broke into applause and she grinned.  In another month, the casts will come off and she’ll start therapy will Pheakdey, our physical therapist.  Her feet will never be pretty to look at, but she’ll be fully functional and able to walk normally.

As Jess quizzes her parents on Sao’s medications, I reward our little trooper with a game of Angry Birds on my IPhone.  Angry Birds has apparently conquered the world.  A fact I discovered when a 6 year old garbage picker in Stung Meanchy took me to task Saturday night for not having Angry Birds on my Ipad for the kids to play.  How a garbage picker in a developing country who lives with no electricity in the middle of the dump knows how to play Angry Birds is completely beyond me.  Up until now, I have escaped this phenomenon, which upon closer inspection, appears to be a game in which evilly cackling birds are hurled through the air on suicidal sling shots in order to try and knock down buildings and crush deformed looking pigs.

Sao happily flings the birds through the air and her siblings all gather around her laughing madly each time a bird explodes.  It’s the little things that make us happy I suppose.

Before we go, Jess asks to see the toothbrushes we gave the family.  We have been working hard to try and get our families to brush their teeth.  Rotting teeth and bleeding, infected gums are an all too common sight in the villages and lead to all sorts of secondary health problems.  Getting the families to brush their teeth is a problem all in itself.  Sao tries to look innocent and blameless when we ask if she has been brushing her teeth and then claps her hands over her mouth when we ask her to show us her pearly whites.  The toothbrushes are produced and are dark with dirt, but apparently unused.  Jess has gotten wise about toothbrushes that look chewed on since the last time she visited the family, she was pleased to see tooth marks only to discover the only ones chewing on the toothbrushes were the rats.

We say our goodbyes, hop on our mottos and head to the next village over to see 4 year old Houn.  Houn had surgery last week to lengthen the muscles on her thigh that were preventing her from being able to walk normally or squat down.  And in a country where the village toilets are little more than holes in the ground, squatting is a skill that is really needed for self care independence.  The surgery had gone extremely well and we are expecting little Houn to make a full recovery within a couple of months.  The surgery on her thigh was the easy part.  Houn also suffers from a hole in her heart and will be returning to Ankor Hospital For Children for heart surgery in March.

Houn is extremely tiny due to severe malnutrition when she was an infant.  She ducks her head shyly and gives us a little grin when we sit on the pallet with her.  Her mother is happy to see us.  Before Houn became a Safe Haven child, her mother had struggled with trying to get Houn to the doctor for her heart and leg problems.  She could not afford the transportation and did not understand what was wrong with her daughter.  The doctors at the Khmer hospital were not inclined to spend any time explaining things to an illiterate village woman.  Now, she explained to us, she has no more worries for her daughter because we were there to care for Houn and her family.  The doctors at the new hospital, AHC, where we have a partnership, were kind to her and explained things in a way she could understand.  Her fears over the heart surgery were gone because she knew we would help her take care of Houn.

Little Houn doesn’t understand the complexities of her medical condition.  Her interest is solely focused on the stickers Jess has given her and has one adorably stuck to the end of her nose.  Jess uses a pulse oximeter to check her oxygen saturation levels and monitors her breathing and heart rate.  All is well, Houn is in remarkably great shape and her leg is healing nicely.  This family has also NOT been using their toothbrushes.  Well, everyone except Houn’s 3 year old sister who loves her toothbrush and tells us she brushes all the time.  Jess, not above a little bribery to obtain good dental health, gives her a whole stack of stickers.  The other kids are envious and Jess tells them they can have stickers next time if they start brushing their teeth.

The sun is beginning to set and we have a long ride on the mottos back into Siem Reap.  As we cruise along the red dirt roads, past the sugar cane fields and swampy rice crops, I marvel at the beauty of the countryside.  We wind our way through the ancient temples where hundreds of tourists are milling about with their cameras.  From my perch on the motto, dirty and tired from an afternoon in the field, I would not trade my view for anything.  Almost 7 years ago I came to Siem Reap as a tourist and walked through the temples with my camera, marveling at the ruins.

Now the ancient ruins are the view on my commute to “work” in a country I came to as a tourist and have adopted as my second home.  I love this country and her people dearly.

Rats and all.

  • Silvana

    I love reading about your experiences in Cambodia Heather. It puts my life in a different, more beautiful perspective. Thank you for sharing.