Almost every health organization, website and magazine proclaims that breakfast is the most important meal of the deal and as a rule, you should never skip it. I also have a rule: Try to avoid having to use a bathroom in middle of a remote village. This is a rule I have had firmly in place ever since a trip to a village outside Battambang while filming Small Voices. I’ll spare you all the details but it involved a hole, about a thousand flies and a bucket of water with a thin layer of green slime.
Since I strongly feel my rule trumps the breakfast rule, I always skip eating whenever I know I am going to be spending the day out visiting Safe Haven children. So it is with anticipation and an empty stomach that I climb up on the back of Roza’s motobike for our trip out to the Trapang Run and Bangkorng villages. Jess is on her own moto and in short order, we are battling with all of the Korean tour buses for space on the road as we head out of Siem Reap. It is an unspoken rule of the road that the larger the vehicle, the more you give way. In fact, it may be the only rule of the road that is followed with any regularity. It is a rule to live by since if you don’t follow it, you may not live. Motobikes and tour buses that find themselves occupying the same space do not often have positive outcomes, usually for the motobike. So it is with no small measure of good cheer that I’m happy to be off the main road and taking in the scenery as we head first to Kalin’s house. There is no one home when we arrive, which is not a surprise. It is difficult to contact Kalin’s family ahead of time as they do not have a cell phone that works on a regular basis. But one of the benefits of developing a close relationship with our families is that Roza was fairly certain where they might be. A cousin is getting married soon and everyone has been preparing at another family member’s house a short distance away. So Roza takes off in search of Kalin and his parents while I am drawn to the sounds of whimpering towards the back of the yard. I find a tiny puppy in a quivering heap who yelps in fear as I approach. There are any number of stray dogs and cats that live in the villages but don’t actually belong to anyone. As a general rule, dogs are not considered pets. In fact, in one memorable (or not so memorable) conversation with one of my documentary kids, I mentioned my new puppy and my doc kid mentioned the last time he had dog for dinner. I locate an old tin laying in the dirt, rustle up some water from a bucket and cautiously approach the puppy. Within moments, he is drinking from the tin and enthusiastically licking my hand but the sound of the approaching moto scared him off again.
It’s Roza returning with little Kalin and his dad right behind him. Kalin is balanced between his father’s legs on the motobike and his dad is all smiles to see us. Kalin has a number of health issues and developmental delays but since Jess, our Safe Haven nurse, provided his family with a nebulizer to use at home, his lung capacity has improved tremendously. He is also been responding well to physical therapy which has helped him develop more core strength. We are here today for a basic home health check up. Jess listens to his heart and lungs, checks his pulse oxygen level and overall is very happy with how well he is doing. Kalin’s father breaks out his new walker and Kalin coos with delight when he sees it. His father gently lifts his son into position and patiently stands behind him supporting Kalin as he takes a few steps slowly along. For a boy who could barely sit up on his own a year ago, this is pretty awesome to see. Six steps is his version of Mt. Everest and his dad sits back down with him as Jess hands over new boxes of his nebulizer medication. Kalin wastes little time and opening up the boxes and dumping out the contents so he can play with the empty box. It is apparently an unspoken rule among all toddlers that they quickly try to dismantle whatever they can get their hands on, including my IPhone, which his dad rescues from his clutches and returns to me intact with a protective layer of drool on the screen. I think longingly of Clorox wipes as I rub the phone dry on my pants legs.
Before long we are back on our motos and headed off to see our next family. Kalin and his father are off as well on their way back to the wedding preparations. Kalin is perched back between his father’s legs as they roar off down the bumpy road on their motobike. I try not to wince as I wave goodbye from the back of Roza’s motobike wearing my $300 motorcycle helmet.
As we speed down the red dirt path cutting through the fields with their grazing cows and water buffalo, the quiet scenery is broken apart by a sudden blaring of Khmer music. An old man with a giant 1980’s style boom box is alone on the side of the road doing his best Say Anything impression Cambodian style. He has somehow wired it up to a couple of loud speakers on a pole. I’m unsure who he is playing the music for. The cows seems fairly uninterested and Ione Syke is nowhere in sight. Roza is equally as stumped when I ask and confesses he has no idea. I chalk it up to another of life’s little mysteries and hum “In Your Eyes” under my breath.
It is nearly lunchtime when we pull up to the simple wooden hut where Charam and Charan live with their parents and their little brother Pi. Both of the older boys suffer from degenerative disease. An exact diagnosis here can be difficult. But what is absolutely certain is that both their bodies are slowing breaking down. The oldest boy Charam is now completely wheelchair bound and unable to communicate. Charan, the middle child, is now using a walker. Thus far, Pi, the youngest brother, has not begun to show any of the symptoms that struck his brothers before him although he is now at the same age they were when the symptoms began. Our visit today is a result of a recent phone call from the parents that both of the older boys had suffered seizures a few days ago. This is cause for concern as both of the boys have been on seizure medication and been seizure free for quite some time. Jess is concerned they may have gotten a bad batch of medication during their last hospital visit. As she is talking with the parents, two more motobikes pull up. Pheakdey, Safe Haven’s physical therapist and Marguerite, Safe Haven’s volunteer occupational therapist have also arrived. I have given each of the boys a therapy toy and Pi and Charan are delighted with one called a Wiggly Ball. Poor Charam is letting us know he doesn’t like PT by groaning and making faces while Pheakdey works on his legs. She explains the muscles in his legs are particularly tight today.
Luckily, Charam is spared further leg exercises when his mother sits down next to him to feed him lunch. Charam has trouble swallowing and his food must be carefully prepared for him to eat it. His mother uses a food mill to grind up the rice and has carefully shredded up bits of fish into the mushy porridge called Bobor. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Karen Froud of SLP Cambodia, who has spent countless hours, along with other members of her Speech-Language Pathology team, providing a feeding and swallowing assessment and training for Charam’s parents. Their invaluable intervention which they provide free of charge to our Safe Haven kids and other children in need in Cambodia, helps save lives and provides much needed services for children with disabilities. Charam and Charan’s parents haven taken to heart everything they have learn from our Safe Haven team and from ISE Cambodia and have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to the care of their sons. They are an inspiration to our whole team.
Jess has sussed out the cause of the recent seizure in the younger Charan which was misunderstanding about the dosage. Thankfully, the issue was resolved. Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the mystery of the recent seizure in Charam. Everything seems in order with his medication and dosage. As Charam continues to deteriorate, no one is quite sure what to expect and the recent seizure could be a sign of things to come. Uncertainty is often the one thing we can count on.
Pi, the youngest, laughs with delight as I throw him the wiggly ball and he catches it with the assurance of youth, unhampered by the physical difficulties that plague his older brothers. His future is uncertain. But today, as I watch him take the ball and try to play catch with Charan standing balanced in his walker, I think I’ll have gratitude for his current health. For the care and love his parents have for their disabled sons. For the dedicated individuals on the Safe Haven staff who manage to do so much with such limited resources. And for all the blessings in life that have led me here.
That is an excellent rule to live by.