by Rachel M Smith.
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of people with disabilities in the world, partly a result of years of war and civil conflict. Nearly half of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 18, so many people with disabilities in Cambodia are in fact children.
Many parents find it difficult to care for a child with multiple and severe disabilities. If one family member remains at home to care for the child, then there is one less person who can earn much needed income. With few rural support services, parents have difficult decisions to make and many will abandon the child to a government orphanage. In one orphanage located in the capital city of Phnom Penh, there are 60 children with disabilities out of a total number of 144 children.
Sophal has been living at a government orphanage for most of his life. He has severe epilepsy. Sophal does not have the ability yet to speak or to take care of his own basic needs. When I first met him, he sat tied in a chair for most of the day. The staff reported that Sophal had such severe seizures, they were afraid to let him play. Sophal often had large bumps on the left side of his forehead and continued to injure himself in the same place. How could we help Sophal?
Prosthetics in Cambodia
Many land mines still remain in Cambodia after the war. As a result, many of the services for the disabled have concentrated on providing artificial legs (prosthetics) and similar aids. One centre in Phnom Penh trained students to make these aids. They were asked to design something to help Sophal, using an illustration from the book Disabled Village Children by David Werner.
The students were excited about the opportunity to help. It was a different challenge for them. They took the materials normally used for the prosthetic devices and moulded a ‘helmet’ to fit the exact shape of Sophal’s head. The device was very lightweight and strong. It also matched the skin tone of Sophal so was not too noticeable.
Sophal’s injury has finally healed. He walks around now and is beginning to discover the world around him. I see his slightly crooked smile and I am grateful that people were willing to try something new in order to help Sophal.
Rachel M Smith works with the Disability Action Council (DAC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This co-ordinates government, NGOs and international organisations working with and for people with disabilities living in Cambodia.
Case Study - Pezo's story
‘The spirits had planned it.’ Pezo would become one of those useless children who crawl around the ground all their life. She was born with a shortened tendon in her lower leg, extending her foot in such a way that she would never be able to walk.
When she was two, Pezo’s mother brought her into the mission health centre on one of the rare occasions when a doctor was visiting. He examined the twisted foot and offered to operate and correct the deformity. But the family would have to travel 100 miles to the hospital, and the cost seemed too high. They stayed at home and worked in their fields. They had already been to the witchdoctor and he could do nothing. To them, it seemed pointless to fight the spirits.
Pezo continued to grow and crawl around. Her mother had a second baby girl. During the pregnancy they had increasing contact with the local mission nurse and trust began to grow. Then the mother found a patch of pale skin on her own face and was anxious in case it might be leprosy. The whole family travelled to the hospital to see the doctor. At the nurse’s suggestion, the doctor delayed examining the mother until he had operated on Pezo’s leg, putting it into plaster. Then he examined the pale skin on the mother’s face and confirmed that she did not have leprosy. The family returned home, and Pezo began to stand on the plaster. It was a day of real triumph when she looked down at her baby sister and said, ‘See, I’m bigger than you. I can stand!’
Pezo will always have a leg that is weaker and thinner than usual. After she recovered from the surgery she soon began to walk unaided. By the time she was old enough to go to school she was able to walk the six miles either way every day. She was able to take her full part as a productive member of the community.
Her parents recognised that God was more powerful than the spirits who surrounded them. Their friendly relationship with the staff of the mission health centre continued through the years. They often heard the good news of God’s unfailing love, but continued to live in fear and bondage to those spirits.
Sandra Michie is a member of the Footsteps Editorial Committee and was a nurse in Zambia for 25 years.