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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Acid burns Cambodia

This is one of Ania Kania's writings about her work in Cambdoia. Ania's wonderful work is truly in the spirit of rose charity. Please see her blog on

Acid burns - her story

Chan is a woman. She is one of the acid burn patients here at ROSE Charities that I have been treating. She is 33 years old and has a 10 year old daughter - a beautiful girl with chocolate eyes and an enchanting smile. Every time she sees me she beams a smile and laughs out "hello". Before her sister-in-law poured acid all over Chan's face, arms, torso and genitals, she was a potter with her husband. She tells her story during an interview a couple of days ago - the interview was to assess the suitability of the acid burn patients for a potential weaving-training project.

She sits, bandage over the right eye socket (the right eye was removed last week because the acid had caused too much damage). She plays with her hands and looks at her knees. We ask the standard questions - how old, place of birth, how many children she has...She answers them all quitely. When we ask about what she is going to do when she leaves the hospital on friday, she begins to cry and her story comes out through her tears: she had problems with her sister-in-law and there was a family dispute of some sort, which the sister-in-law decided to settle by pouring acid over Chan. Now, because of the acid burns, her husband wants to divorce her and look for another wife. She has no family - both of her parents are dead and she has no siblings. She has no place to go now. She continues to cry, softly and quietly, while she speaks in Khmer. The nurse, Nemol, translates. She wants to die, she says. Begging is the only thing she will be able to do. She is going to go out on the streets with her daughter and will become a beggar and die somewhere on the streets because there is not other choice for her - nobody will have her. After she finishes translating this, the nurse laughs. I have been told many times that when situations are very uncomfortable or disconcerting, the Khmer response is to laugh. Half of my brain recalls this piece of information at this very moment and the other half is having a melt down at the bizzare response. I look at the nurse and explain that I realize this is a difficult situation however it is not funny, and laughing is not the response this patient needs. I think she understood because she quickly continued to inquire about further details of Chan's immediate situation.

Chan's daughter is beautiful and if they end up on the streets, she will quickly be swept up by someone and sold into some sort of child/sex trafficing situation...the idea is untolerable. She is quick, bright and lovely - like her mother. I have never met a patient as compliant as Chan- she has done everything I have asked her do regarding exercise routines, scar massage, wearing pressure garments... and her future is the streets, out of necessity, out of lack of choice. In this very moment I am greatful to have Will (an Aussie nurse) sitting across from me. It's silly really, but I'm acutely aware that although this is Cambodia, where "Cambodian" things happen, I realize that this situation is not a case of a "canadian" and a "cambodia"... what is happening here is so completely human - this has nothing to do with culture or history or nationality. This story is not uncommon in many places. These are daily occurances in many culture. Dispair, poverty, lack of basic necessities for life are the result of human activity. The places and cultures only give it a differnt colour. Helping and supporting one another is a human ability - not one determined by culture or history or nationality. I think our tolerance of violence and inaction is more cultural. I'm suddenly acutely aware of how closely and profoundly we can affect each others' lives and how most of the time we do not realize or recognize it or respect it. She is ready to slip through the very fat fingers of a system that shrugs it's shoulders at such circumstances and realities; "people here are poor and that is what happens. It's normal".
One thing I made up my mind about right now: she is not going to end up on the streets and her daughter is not going to be exploited by some sex tourists. I looked an Nemol (the nurse) and explained that we can help this woman and we are going to. Please tell her, I ask Nemol to translate, that she will have a place to live, she will find a job and her daughter is going to go to school.

The nurse translated this to Chan. Chan put her hands together to say thank you. She continued to speak softly. I know she is still in shock over all of it - how she looks, her life as she knew it is over, her husband is leaving her to find a second wife. She has no home, no money, nobody to turn to. What does she hang onto?...I don't know. I can't and won't pretend that I do. But what I do know is that for her and her daughter the streets are not the place where they will carry on their days. That is not an option.

Will and I make a few phone calls to expates working in NGOs here in Phnom Penh...we are referred to Hagar Shelter - a shelter for woman and their children. The next day we pack up Chan and her daughter into one of the trucks and head off to Hagar for an assessment interview. Will keeps the daughter close to her side and Chan hangs onto my hand. She has put on new clothes (a pajama set) and wrapped a towel around her head in the traditional Khmer way. She is wearing glasses I gave her to keep the dust and dirt out of her left eye that still cannot completely close because of the scars. Nemol does all of the talking and translating - she is fantastic. We walk around the shelter - looking at the bedrooms, the kitchen, vocational training rooms (sewing and haircutting), the shool rooms with kids couting in english. Chan's daughter counts along with them and shyly edges towards one of the rooms. Hagar shelter is an incredible place. The woman showing us around is gentle, understanding, soft spoken and very aware of what these woman go through...she knows their stories and accepts them.

Today, Chan comes into the recovery room for scar massage and dressing changes. Her scars are coming along well. Her left eye can almost close completely. Her neck range of motion is good and has maintained. She is always wearing her pressure garments. She says: I want to get fat. So when I get fat what do I do with this (pointing to the pressure garment)?". I explain she will get a new one. Nemol asks how she is. "I am happy. I don't want to die", she responds.

On a personal note: This very moment has made this entire trip worth while. This very moment is changing my life. I cannot express the happiness I feel in my heart - it is a happiness filled with relief and hope. It is a sensation where you need to take a deeper breath, your heart beats a little faster and harder, and you want to bow to what is infront of you. Chan accepts my hand as we walk back to her bed, where she has begun packing her few belongings.

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