With our week in Phnom Penh behind us, Cher and I pack up and prepare to head to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap. I’m feeling bittersweet at leaving the kids, but elated that the main goal and reason for my trip to Phnom Penh has been met. Linna, my darling little artful dodger is safely off the streets for the first time in her life. She is adapting well to life at the Aziza’s Place school and I can’t wait to return in January to see the progress she had made.
It is also the last leg of our trip that Cher and I have to transport the wheelchair/stroller for little Sum Nang. True to form, we arrive at the airport, request to gate check the chair and receive the standard puzzled look because it is empty. This time, they don’t ask where the child is – they wonder why I am letting Cher push her own wheelchair instead of riding in it. They see she is wearing an AFO and assume the chair is for her. Though fitting Cher in the chair would be like fitting me in another spa bra, without the profound embarrassments. (see spa blog for details!)
In short order, we’ve arrived at the gate and my heart nearly stops. We are on a propeller plane for the flight to Siem Reap. My mood plunges from Sunny to Surly in about 2 seconds and I try not to hyperventilate. I’ve managed quite well day to day to keep my fear of flying in check because I fly several times a week due to my job, but some things I haven’t yet been able to master. Flying in a plane that resembles a wind up toy is one of them. Cher is chatting next to me but I can only answer in mono symbols and I am sure I’m none to pleasant to be next to. The attendants go through the dog and pony show about masks and life vests, though I often wonder who really has time to yank out that vest, put it on and inflate it while the plane is plunging from the sky.
Needless to say, we didn’t plunge out of the sky and land safely in Siem Reap. The hotel is waiting to pick us up and they proceed to cram the chair roughly into the back of the van with Cher hovering nervously nearby trying to give them instruction. Now it is her turn to be grouchy. “It will be our luck that I’ve lugged this thing through two states, three countries and five airports and it breaks in Siem Reap when we arrive” she grouses.
Being grouchy takes a lot out of us and we are so tired at dinner we can barely keep our eyes open. Cher wearily focuses on three mosquitoes swarming about my head while I madly slap at them. They clearly have gotten the memo that we stupidly left our bug repellant in Phnom Penh and they are eager to welcome us with a little Dengue Fever or Typhoid as a welcome to Siem Reap. Luckily, this hotel provides bug killer right in the room next to the complimentary robes and Cher is on the case the second we are in for the night, prowling the room can in hand. Typhoid Mary herself.
We awake the next morning happy and eager to begin the day. Today is the day we head to the Missions Of Charity orphanage where I first met five year old Sum Nang four months ago. My sweet little boy with Cerebral Palsy who is unable to sit up on his own or speak. The overworked, understaffed nuns who care for him and TWENTY-ONE able bodied toddlers and two other handicapped kids are simply not equipped to handle him. My amazing sister Cher, who has worked as a CP therapist and caretaker for the past 16 years ready to change this situation. She has carefully put together a regiment of exercise and equipment designed to improve Sum Nang’s quality of life and create a workable day-to-day schedule for him that the nuns can easily follow. Today is a day of firsts. We must slowly introduce both Sum Nang and the nuns to the wheelchair and therapy toys and Cher needs to determine the extent of his condition.
I’m already in love with Sum Nang and have thought of him often in these last four months as I waited impatiently for permission from Mother Superior to provide assistance. It takes Cher roughly 5 seconds to fall in love as well. He has the sweetest smile and it is clear he is intelligent, yet trapped in his body. Though he is five, he is developmentally around 6 months old due to his condition and a lack of stimulation.
Cher fits him into the chair and he is delighted. Sum Nang has spent most of his time up until this point on his back in a crib. He LOVES the chair. He breaks into a huge smile and seems to react well to sitting up. Cher works with him with a variety of therapy toys and he is particularly thrilled with a red bird that chirps. She uses it to test both his hearing, his ability to track it with his eyes and his range of motion with his neck and head, which he cannot fully support on his own. It is a busy morning of new sensations for him and in short order; it is time for a nap. Cher has brought special shirts for him as well that are designed to wick moisture away from his body. Since he spends so much time in one position, the humidity in Cambodia often causes him to break out in bad rashes. But my sister has thought of everything and has included special shirts as well as prescription creams in her bag of wonder. She has also brought, according to the nuns, a miracle powder called “Thick It”. Sum Nang has a lot of difficulty swallowing and all his food is blended into thick soup. But up until now, he has not been drinking water or milk because he can’t swallow it. Cher demonstrates with the Thick It how to add to water and create a thick soup he can now swallow. Sum Nang loves the water and this amazing product shocks the nuns. We try it with some orange juice with the complete opposite effect. Sum Namg HATES orange juice and makes no bones about letting us know this. Cher spoons it into his mouth and he flails his arms at her, scrunching his face in an adorable, angry “YUCK” way.
After nap it is time for exercises. We lay him on a bed and work with his gross extremities. During naptime Cher and I worked with a translator and have learned a variety of Khmer words to use with Sum Nang related to exercises, body parts and basic baby words so we can be sure we are speaking and praising him in his native tongue. I’m sure our pronunciation leaves a LOT to be desired but Sum Nang doesn’t seem to care. He loves the exercise and smiles hugely at us when we praise him. Already, he is making strides that Cher can’t believe. He quickly catches on to the arm exercises as Cher lifts his arm up and down repeatedly. On one series, she lifts it up and then leaves it. We both say Sum Nang, Joh! Which means down. He focuses, strains and with a bit of difficulty, lowers his arm all on his own. We explode into praise. The nun in the room with us is thrilled beyond belief. He does it a couple more times for good measure and we are just ecstatic.
Then we are on to some vocal exercises. Sum Nang doesn’t speak due to Dysartera among other things. We won’t know until further testing. Cher places his little hand on her throat and makes the sound AHHHH. Sum Nang jumps about 2 feet in the air and makes a loud vocalization. Good thing I was holding him at the time because his reaction caught us both off guard. But we were excited by his reaction. We both begin saying AHH with large movements of our mouths while Cher holds one of his hands to her throat and his other to his own. Constant repetition finally pays off: I lean close to Sum Nang and say Ah. He looks at me and says AH back, twice in a row. We laugh in delight.
The day has flown by and little Sum Nang is exhausted. Cher remarks that she could simply just put him in the chair and return to the States with him since everyone asked where the baby was on the trip over. Sister Sobila from India changes him for bed and we kiss him goodnight, already looking forward to the next day.
People will undoubtedly remark what a difference we are making in his life- but I think he is the one making the difference in ours…
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.