It had been gradually forming in my mind for a few days, spurred on by an email from home urging me to keep track of the premature baby from Thmar Puok, and to report on the outcome. Born at 5am on 25th May, weighing 1.7kg (a little under 3lb 12oz) the second child of Oeun Srey Own, poor wife of a poor soldier on active service, had bled from the umbilical cord soon after birth and didn’t have the most auspicious start in life. It was transferred with the parents to a paediatric hospital in Siem Reap almost 150km away, I didn’t know which one; I didn’t know the child’s name; I didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl, and the challenge was to find out if it had arrived and survived.
My time in Cambodia has flown by. When I think of home, the time sometimes drags, but faced by the things I still need to do and want to complete, as the Romans said – tempus simply fugit. I have only two weekends left before I head for Phnom Penh to wrap up a few things there before flying home (there’s that word again). But there is a small window of opportunity, and how appropriate too – Wednesday, June 1st is another national holiday, International Children’s Day.
My VSO colleagues in education have been preparing for some time for this. The schools here make much of the occasion – in Banteay Meanchey, Hannah will be making a speech in front of the whole school alongside the visiting dignitaries and Vicky will be telling the story of the hungry caterpillar, in Khmai! In health, as usual, the hospital will be staffed by a skeleton crew, not just in orthopaedics and X-Ray, in the paediatric and maternity wards too. We don’t miss the chance of a holiday!
Visiting Siem Reap would also allow me to make a donation to Kantha Bopha, one of the free children’s hospitals (not for free children, but for poor children who don’t have to pay). The donation would be from the fund donated by friends in the UK since so little of it has been used already and I’m nearing the end of my term. I also planned another donation before I left Wales. I decided at the last blood donor session in my home town to keep my blood in case it was needed here, and since Mongkul Borei Hospital has a good blood bank replenished by regular donations from the relatives of patients undergoing surgery, I haven’t had to offer mine yet. Dengue fever season has come early this year and severely affected children need blood and platelets to survive, so my pint of A+ would be welcome there. Further, a month or so back I bought a DVD of the hospital’s 15 year history to show folks back home and I found it was faulty, so I need to exchange.
The only additional condition that would make the journey feasible would be for my language assistant, Mr Huorn, to travel with me. I thought I could manage everything except to locate the baby, and that was proven to be so. He was planning to take advantage of the holiday too and after a few hours deliberation, he agreed to be my James Bond and accept the mission. I was to be M, though I didn’t attempt to emulate Judy Dench’s performances.
We waited in the usual Cambodian fashion for the late arrival of the bus, and then some more while the passengers piled off and the driver had his breakfast. Numerous vendors sought to ply their wares, adults and children, and I bought a waffle for 1,000 Riel from a girl who promptly sold the next to a Dutch tourist for 2,000 as he didn’t know the going rate. She buys in at 700 and may sell as many as 100-150 in a day and so make 12-18 dollars profit. The young boy with her also knows how to play the market and get the best prices; he’s Vietnamese and presumably his family is here too. I’m happy to support their business, but the drug addict who carries a naked little boy like a rag doll and pretends to beg for food for the child makes me angry. Today I shouted at him and did my best gesticulation to compensate for my incomprehensible English rant which ended in “I know you can’t understand a word I’m saying but that child shouldn’t be used for you to support your habit and if I had my way the child would be taken off you and you’d be locked up.” One of the Khmai passengers waiting with us who apparently did understand what I said, sent him off with a flea in his ear.
When the journey did get under way, it was comfortable and uneventful, aside from the terminal event which was our safe arrival in Siem Reap. My friend Vin tuk tuk driver happened to phone before we left, asking after my health (always polite and politically correct, these Cambodians) before enquiring when I might be visiting Siem Reap again. “Funny you should ask, I’m on my way now and I will need your help!” He ferried us around from bus station to hospital A, to restaurant and hospital B, to Blue Pumpkin (that’s for ice cream in case you haven’t already twigged what it implies) and hospital A, to bus station and taxi rank, juggling his other customer commitments with ours although I rather think he began the day with little prospect of business, hence the boredom and the random morning phone call.
The donations were the easy part. Giving $500 simply required my signature on a form and a hand stuck in my back pocket (my hand I hasten to add). I have a certificate to prove it. Giving a unit of blood involved another form and an arm stuck out willingly. It hurt a bit and I have a plaster to prove it, and a T shirt, and a packet of calcium and vitamin D fortified wheat crackers, and some leaflets and car stickers for my friends, and 7 days’ supply of iron tablets. They only took 350ml. Men can give this amount every 3 months and women every 4 months – they recognise we are the stronger sex! Though maybe it has something to do with menstruation, childbirth and breast feeding, but I was never any good at them. I can change nappies.
The real difficulty was finding the baby. Fortunately Nurse Alison had gone today to Thmar Puok and I was able to phone her for further information. She had arrived in the midst of chaos. One woman had just delivered a stillborn child and was alone in one room. In another a ventouse delivery was in full swing for a mother who had been too long in the second stage. The ‘skeleton staff’ was fully occupied and could not be disturbed for trivial queries like mine. It took a few hours to establish that the baby in question had been a girl, had not been named before leaving and had gone to an unknown destination. Meanwhile we had quizzed a very patient receptionist in Angkor Children’s Hospital Visitor Centre and waited for an hour, watching their video of the Japanese founding of the hospital and the achievements of the dedicated staff, yet another wonderful example of what can be achieved with vision and determination, in this case by a photographer who loved Angkor Wat and who had subsequently fallen in love with the children and decided to do something about the terrible toll of sickness allied to poverty in this land. She could not find a record of the child, but there are so many admissions each day and those that might have fitted the description on the date in question were not from Thmar Puok, besides, the admitted children are all registered by name and we didn’t know the name, did we?
Back to Kantha Bopha where I had left my blood. We knew that visiting time started at 5pm and that only Khmai people are allowed in. I briefed my secret agent for the final time. “Take my note book with the parents’ names, ask about small baby girls admitted last Wednesday from Thmar Puok, if you find the mother ask how the baby is doing, what treatment she’s getting, when they might go home (paternity leave expires in 2 days’ time) and ask discretely have they enough money left for travel. If you find them, call me on my phone in case there’s something else I want to know.” He blended with the crowd of relatives streaming through the hospital gates and was gone. I sat on the white plastic chair kindly offered by the security guard and tried to look inconspicuous reading my paperback, as nonchalantly as western tourists usually do. As time passed by, the longer I waited, the more confident I grew. He must be on to something. He’s certainly still at it, searching, and he hasn’t been thrown out, though he could have been arrested and his phone confiscated but our resourceful agent should be able to wriggle his way out of that sort of thing. An hour later James Huorn Bond emerged, hiding his emotions except that his smile gave the secret away. Success! He had found her. The family were no longer here, but a baby matching that description and from that district had been admitted on the day in question. Her name was Oeun Srey Vann, after the mother. She was doing well and was sent home with the parents to Banteay Chhmar commune on May 29th. My spy had done well too, and despite saying he was a relative (not part of the briefing, honest!), he had emerged untarnished and unscathed. Mission accomplished!