Our last full day in Cambodia has been one of mixed emotions. So much has been accomplished these last few weeks and yet I feel I am leaving with tasks undone. Wonderful connections with a variety of different organizations have come to fruition. The scope and mission of Safe Haven has become more refined and defined and I am anxious to more forward. Two years in not a long period of time in which to build a handicap school, staff it and be ready to open our doors but two years also seems like an eternity when I want Sum Namg out of the orphanage and under our care tomorrow. Already, I am making plans to return in March to follow up with meetings and leads I was not able to follow this trip.
Cher bounces out of bed and is already chirping her breakfast song at me before my eyes have actually opened. She is in good humor despite the fact the damn rooster outside our window had been crowing since 3 am. Tonight at Shinta Mani they are having a special “Wild Life” BBQ and we are both half hoping rooster will be on the menu along side the Young Bees, Sweet and Sour Ant Soup, Frogs on the Grill and Crocodile Filets. We amble down to our breakfast table pleased to find it empty. Yesterday, another couple had the audacity to sit at our table and we discovered in the morning we don’t like change to our routine. Cher orders tea and actually gets it. The last couple of mornings I’ve order a mocha latte because the young hospitality staff at Shinta Mani, former street kids learning the hotel trade, simply LOVE to use the espresso machine. They get so excited when you order a coffee drink and they are able to show off their newly acquired barista skills. In fact, they’ve gotten so enthusiastic that every time I order one, they bring a 2nd for Cher, despite the fact she keeps ordering tea. We don’t have the heart to correct them.
Sated from my yummy breakfast of Cambodian pancakes with raisins and honey (I wonder if the poor bees that produced the honey are the same ones being featured on the “wild bbq menu later”) we saunter out the door and hop into a Tuk Tuk to head to Krousar Thmey –the school for deaf and blind kids. The school is beautiful and we are both very impressed with our tour. It turns out that the new Khmer sign language is basically French sign with a couple of random cultural Khmer signs thrown in for good measure. This discovery has a plus in that my sister can sign in French. Within moments of starting our tour, she is attracting attention. She signs through the windows of some classrooms with various kids and silently, the word is spreading: There is a pale, white woman wandering around who knows Khmer sign! Class ends and Cher is engulfed by a sea of deaf kids all frantically conversing with her in sign while they touch her white skin and marvel. All except one boy who thinks white skin is pretty ugly. He gets whapped on the side of his head for that comment (by another boy, not Cher). We learn that the teachers all go through a 6-week crash training course in Khmer Sign to become instructors. I had been hoping we could send our deaf disabled students for classes at Krousar when Safe Haven opened, since they were already the leading facility/school for the deaf. However, they do not take kids with other handicaps and they only allow teachers who are going to teach for them to go through the training course. The woman giving us the tour thinks I should be able to persuade the organization to allow my teachers to take the course. I agree and resolve to get this accomplished.
We leave Krousar in high spirits and head back to Shinta Mani to meet up with Pierre and go out to look at a plot of land for sale a short distance from the center of Siem Reap. My friend Chitra, the manager of Shinta Mani, had put the word out that we were looking for land to build the school and we got word of a plot that seemed to good too be true.
The land is beautiful. Because Safe Haven must be built from the ground up because there are no handicap buildings here, we need an unusually large plot of land. Situated in an excellent part of Siem Reap off of two actual PAVED roads, the plot is not only big enough for the school, it is semi private with a private road, actually has power lines that can be tapped into and well access to potable water. A perfect combination almost unheard of. We can’t help but grin and feel a sense of excitement – the piece is exactly what we need. The owner is letting is go for $40 per square meter, when normally the land in this area is going for $90 per square meter, which would save us a huge amount of money in the long run. Chitra is sure he will hold it with a deposit, which I pledge to put down and allow us time to fund raise the rest. We leave feeling very euphoric and Pierre pin marks it on his Iphone map and saves it as “Safe Haven Site”.
Unfortunately, the owner of the land is in a bit of a jam and needs money right away, hence the half price deal. He will hold the land for me, but only for 4 weeks. While I can put the 10% deposit down, he wants the $79,000 balance within a month. It is a crushing blow. But I am determined not to let the land go so easy. Hasan, Pierre and I agree to meet for breakfast to come up with a plan to aggressively try to raise the money for the land within the month deadline. It is a risk to put down the deposit, knowing there is a chance I will not make the deadline and likely lose the money, but with the hardships and risks these kids face everyday – it is the omen to press on. $79,000 in 30 days? I believe we can make it happen.
With our minds whirling with crazy fundraising ideas, we head back and meet up with my friend Matt Bernstein, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon from Los Angeles who trains surgeons in developing countries through his non profit Mobile Pediatric Orthopedic Education. He is also in Cambodia due to his own non-profit work and we agreed to meet up in Siem Reap to talk about how we might work together. I’ve also asked him for a personal favor:
One of Chitra’s street kids, a graduate of her hospitality program, fell ill a few weeks ago. His family was having the local healer treat him but she insisted on taking him to the hospital. His older sister had died the year before after swelling up with a high fever. The family thought it was an evil spirit and tried local remedies. They didn’t work. This young man is part of the Shinta Mani family and all of the employees were worried. Chitra got him to a hospital where they ran some blood work. The doctor then walked into the room, said, “You are going to die” and handed him some pills. Cancer. There are no cancer treatments in Cambodia or specialists to deal with this disease. The bluntness of his death pronouncement caused him to fall into a deep depression. Newly married to another graduate of the street kid hospitality program, he tried to kill himself twice this week. In tremendous pain and despairing of any hope. His family moved him back to the pagoda and he has been there for 2 weeks while Chitra has struggled to find something, anything, to give him a chance.
Matt agrees to come with Chitra and I out to the pagoda. Even though cancer is not his specialty, he plans to examine him and review his records and meds in case there is a chance something can be done. I had sent out info to every possible connection (matt was one) I have and Chitra has started the process to get him an emergency passport in the hopes we can move him to a cancer treatment facility in Thailand or elsewhere abroad.
We arrive at the pagoda and are welcomed into the family’s hut. The young man is sitting upright in a chair because his lungs are so filled with fluids, he cannot lie down without choking. Sweat pours off him and he shakes with pain. His young wife gently rubs his face and neck with a cold cloth every few minutes. He is moaning his despair. Matt looks at the meds he was given: Tylenol, a vitamin, augmentin and amoxicillin (2 antibiotics) and a mild pain medication. He examines him and reviews his test results.
It is Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which left untreated is fatal within a few weeks. The young man is already on the verge of death. We quietly step outside and converse. Nothing can be done at this point; he is end stage and will likely not survive the next few weeks. Even if we could get him to a cancer center, it is too late to start treatment. Matt feels the best course of action is to try and make him as comfortable as possible. He consults with some fellow doctors via phone both here in Cambodia and the States and we head to a pharmacy. Matt prescribes morphine and steroids to ease his pain and some of his symptoms. Nothing else can be done. We are mostly silent in the van on the way back and contemplating the last remaining son – who has now seen his sister and brother in the grips of this cancer. I can’t imagine what thoughts are running through his head. Matt and I exchange weary sighs. The hard truth is, you can’t win every battle you fight – sometimes instead you must surrender as gracefully as possible. Hopefully, this new medication will ease his transition. It is a hard afternoon.
We head to the orphanage and spend a little time with Sum Namg. Only this afternoon and tomorrow morning left to spend with my precious guy, who is fighting a fairly bad cold. Cher finishes his therapies and I take him in my arms and walk around the yard singing to him. It has become our routine right before I put him to bed and kiss him goodnight prior to our leaving. Today is the last day until March. I put him in his crib and kiss his forehead, loving when he gives me his toothless grin. We are a long way from Safe Haven opening and the battle to not lose the land has just begun. Sum Namg has a long fight ahead of him to reach his full potential. Both are shaping up to be challenging fights.
You can’t win every battle.
But some you can.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.