My beloved little 5 year old Sum Namg, who died a year ago last August from complications during a grand mal seizure, is never far from my thoughts, especially in Siem Reap, where I first fell in love with him at the Sisters Of Charity Orphanage. Sum Namg’s name meant “Lucky” in Khmer. While one can certainly argue that his life, crippled by Cerebral Palsy and medical issues, was far from what one would term “Lucky”, he brought light, love and luck to everyone around him. Without him, Safe Haven would not exist. Without him, the 47 children receiving medical care and physical therapy would still be hidden away in their villages and referred to as the “unlucky” ones.
Without him, my life will never be the same.
Shortly after Sum Namg died, my friend Chitra introduced me via email to a lovely Australian woman named Noelene who had adopted Sum Namg’s identical twin brother Chan. We developed a friendship via the internet and exchanged pictures of the boys. Although both of us spend a lot of time in Cambodia, we have always managed to just miss each other in our travels. This trip, luck was on our side and we found ourselves in Siem Reap together. I was both excited and terrified walking across the grounds of the FCC hotel and restaurant where we agreed to meet for dinner. I spotted Chan first and stopped short before approaching them, drinking in the sight of this handsome little guy, happily dancing around his mother’s chair. I knew that smile, those eyes, the shape of his face. To see him there, so like Sum Namg but healthy and happy flooded me with a storm of emotions. I gave myself a little pep talk about not crying in front of strangers and walked up to Noelene. She felt like family from the moment we embraced and I sat down in a chair opposite Chan unable to tear my eyes away from him.
Noelene’s friend, Dr. Desmond Brown, had joined us for dinner. Through sheer coincidence, Desmond, a pediatric surgeon, had done surgery on little Houn, one of our Safe Haven kids, earlier that week. Desmond is in Cambodia once a year to volunteer as a surgeon and he mentioned to his friend Noelene about this new organization called Safe Haven he was particularly impressed by. As luck would have it, Noelene told him she knew the founder and invited him to join us. I was thrilled with the opportunity to be able to discuss our Safe Haven kids with Desmond and gain the support of a valuable ally but I was singularly unable to keep my mind on the conversation. My eyes kept going back to Chan and I had to apologize for my inability to focus. Despite my pep talk, tears welled up in my eyes as Chan settled himself into my lap, touched my face and told me his brother was in heaven.
Desmond and I discussed a few of our orthopedic cases and he encouraged me to bring any child we had in need of a consultation in that week before he left on Friday. In fact, we had another 5 year old boy named Sum Namg who was new to our Safe Haven program that had deformed left leg. The irony of Desmond, Noelene and I all finding ourselves together in this moment in Siem Reap, moving towards helping another 5 year old boy named Sum Nang is a powerful one.
Wednesday morning, Roza, Jess and I headed over to Ankor Children’s Hospital with little Sum Namg and his grandmother. Sum Namg has lived with his grandmother since he was 8 months old. His father is dead, his mother is sick with HIV and his God parents are in jail. When Sum Namg was two, he fell down and cracked his tibia. The local healer treated the wound with a mixture of gasoline and salt to reduce the swelling and that was the extent of the medical intervention. Sum Namg’s lower leg developed a significant bowing to the front. His grandmother had saved up money the previous year to take him to a doctor who pronounced the bones “rotten” and sent them on their way. We were hoping for a marked improvement from the gasoline and salt at AHC.
Sum Namg was a bit tired and hungry sitting in the large outdoor waiting area as Jess worked on getting the paperwork filled out. His grandmother bought him the stickiest piece of cake ever baked and he snuggled on my lap as I fed him bits of the cake. Within minutes, both of us are covered in gooey crumbs. He licks his fingers and mine for good measure and then tucks his head on my shoulder, his arms and legs wrapped tight around my torso.
I was having a not so nostalgic flashback to the last time I sat in this outdoor waiting room with a sick little boy on my lap. My friend John and I had come across a boy while checking on a well water project out in the Prech Dey village. He had been burning with fever, blisters covering his lips and a deep, racking cough. I had scooped him up in my arms and taken him to the hospital. We waited all day for him to be seen, only to have a Cambodian doctor spend five minutes looking at him and prescribing antibiotics.
Three months later I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. I spend a year on an intensive treatment protocol, keenly aware how lucky I was to live in a country where I COULD get treated and cured, knowing full well the little boy from the village was probably dead.
Thanks to our NGO status, we are able to Sum Namg’s paperwork processed and get him into X Ray fairly quickly. Desmond met us after he finished an early morning surgery and we looked at Sum Namg’s X Rays. The prognosis was a rare disorder known as osteofibrous dysplasia ossifying fibroma, which sounds utterly terrifying but is actually benign lesions that form on the tibia bone and cause bowing. While Sum Namg’s bowing is actually rather extreme, the overall bone structure in his leg is fairly strong. Desmond lets us know that surgery will not be necessary, in fact, it is entirely possible as Sum Namg grows and his leg lengthens, the curve will straighten out on its own. This is a welcome piece of news and we agree to monitor Sum Namg every month and send Desmond X Rays in 6 months so we can make sure the condition does not unexpectedly worsen.
We are all considerably cheered by this but we have another hurdle to clear this day. Sum Namg’s father died of HIV and his mother, also HIV positive, is extremely ill. It is a sobering thought to contemplate, but the fact is we need to get Sum Namg tested for HIV. I carry him over to another part of the hospital where they do blood work as well as pre and post opt HIV test counseling for families. Roza accompanies Sum Namg and his grandmother inside. Before long, Sum Namg comes running out with a little puff of cotton on his arm and wants me to pick him back up. I cuddle him for a few moments while Roza tells him what a big boy he was not to be scared of the needle. We sent Sam Namg and his grandmother home with instructions to meet us back at the hospital at 2pm for the results of the blood work. In less than two hours, we will know what the future holds for this little boy. I am praying it will be one free of HIV.
Here’s hoping for a little more luck.