My last day in Siem Reap started off rather well. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I actually slept through the night. Feeling full of spit and vinegar I bounded down the steps to Shinta Mani’s café for a much-needed cappuccino. The absolutely adorable staff – trainees from their trade school hover around me anxious to test their new skills and a young man who had just started the day before is absolutely excited to show off his barista skills. He wants to be the one to make my coffee and nearly twenty minutes later, he carefully walks over with his masterpiece of perfect foam and delicately sprinkled coco powder. Depositing it in front of me with a hopeful grin, he steps back and waits for the verdict. I take a sip – it’s ice cold. No small wonder since it took him so long to make it look good but I don’t have the heart to tell him and instead opt for reassuring him that it is simply the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. He thanks me about a dozen times and trots off with a happy smile. It’s too hot in Siem Reap for hot coffee anyway….
Trina, my Cambodian guide from the day before is waiting to take me to the orphanage to visit the children and I have mixed feelings about going. I have spent most of my time and energy in Cambodia these last few years working with street and garbage dump children. While they struggle every day, most have parents and I’ve long felt I needed to see what the conditions were like for the children who didn’t have parents. I’ve heard horror stories about orphanages in developing countries and after yesterday’s adventure with the sick children in the village I wonder if I am up to it. Especially after Trina informs me that she received a report that the boy we brought to the hospital with his aunt was unable to find his mother at the hospital where she is being treated for TB and returned the village without seeing her. And the young mother with the toddler with the infected cleft lip never returned to the hospital as requested, despite the transportation we arranged for her. Apparently that boulder I am pushing uphill just knocked me flat down again and got stuck at the bottom of the hill in a crater for good measure.
Less than a half an hour later we are pulling up in front of a small, white building with a plaque reading “Sisters Of Charity Mission.” The orphanage is run by two elderly Korean Catholic nuns who seem full of good intentions but not exactly full of the energy required for the massive troop of little toddlers that come screaming up to me on little plastic riding toys like a tiny motorcycle gang. Apparently visitors are a special treat and they all begin clamoring to be picked up. They poke, prod and drool on me while laughing with delight at the attention. They range in age from about 9 months to 5 years old, except for one girl of 13 who has CP and severe developmental disabilities. They are trying to find another home for her because she has outgrown their facility but no one knows where to send her. One little guy yells his disapproval from a nearby crib that he is not being included in the festivities so I scoop him up. His name is Sum Nang. There is a large bony growth between his eyes, which resembles a small horn. He is unable to focus his eyes because the growth has distorted his upper cranium. The nuns tell me the doctors will not operate until he is 3 years old. I ask how hold he is now and they are unsure, which doesn’t bode well for follow through when the time does come for surgery. I try to pry information out of the Sisters about the children but there is a bit of a language barrier, so I settle on the floor instead and just allow the children to use my as a jungle gym. All in all, I think, it could be worse. The room is clean and the cribs are well maintained. The children appear well fed and happy.
It is about 30 minutes into the visit when I spot him. I had returned Sum Nang to his crib when a small movement caught my eye in the back room off the main room. There are a handful of cribs back there and I notice there is a boy in one. His large brown eyes staring at through the bars of his bed captivate me and I wander closer to the door of his room wondering why he is on his own back there, far removed from the activity and laughter in the front room. A young man enters the shelter then – a gentle giant named Haman who introduces himself and tells me he has recently arrived as a volunteer from Europe. He notices me eyeing the small boy in the back room and asks the sisters permission to ‘show me’. They nod and Haman leads me into the back where I stare down at a small boy laying flat on his back clad only in a diaper which is a size too small. His name is also Sum Nang. He is five years old though he is the size of a 2 year old. Haman tells me that Sum Nang has some type of a spinal injury or deformity – they really don’t know because no one has ever examined him. All they know is that while he has feeling and can move his lower body; he apparently has no control over it. Unable to sit up or roll over on his own, he spends his days in the crib flat on his back. The nuns, while good intentioned, simply don’t know what to do with him. Only since Haman’s arrival has Sum Nang started getting rotated in his crib and his little body is covered head to toe in a heat rash that has become infected. He is not vocal at all. They assume he is developmentally delayed, but this is also a boy that has received no stimulation at all for years. I tickle his feet and he breaks into a big grin watching my face and movements with his expressive eyes. Haman fans him and Sum Nang laughs soundlessly again. There is a stuffed animal in his crib but it is tied to the side. There is noting for him to grasp and play with even though he has use of his upper body. I am dismayed to discover he has an identical twin brother who was adopted but the family did not want the disabled other brother. Haman seems frustrated with the fact that little has been or can be done for this boy and it is likely that his developmental problems are exacerbated by the fact he is alone in a crib on his back all the time. Once a day, he tells me, the nuns pick Sum Nang up and walk him around the yard outside a few times before putting him back. Apparently, he loves this activity and I’m thinking very uncharitable thoughts because of course he likes it! It’s the only time his scenery changes! This boy should be having physical contact and stimulation more than one a day like a prisoner let out in the yard for his exercise.
There are moments when I really feel that God has put things in my path for a purpose. Looking down at Sum Nang, I am thinking of the amazing surgeon from Los Angeles who performed the spinal surgery on one of my Cambodian kids Lyda and has gone on to start his own non profit here in Siem Reap to assist in other cases and the amazing doctor from the speech and pathology department at Columbia University that I met at my screening a few weeks ago who will actually be joining me in Phnom Penh. Two doctors, both with specialties in fields of expertise that Sum Nang desperately needs that have been brought into my life. If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is. I lean over the crib and tickle his feet once more, rewarded with a big toothless smile. It’s time to bring him out of the back room.
One way or another.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.