Students at a Wisconsin school conduct service learning project and assist hospital patients.

October 8, 2008

Latsamee has cerebral palsy. Bounmee has a broken femur. Ta lost both arms and an eye during an accident with a bomblet All three live in small villages in rural Laos and all needed help that they could only get in Vientiane. Two words: “Road trip!”

Vientiane, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Yai and I were both apprehensive about our trip from Odoumsouk village to the city of Vientiane.  Its less than 300 miles from point to point but in Laos the rigors of a journey are never measured in miles.  We’ve never traveled from our camp to the capital without having something unfortunate, or at least unexpected, happening.  And this trip, our passengers included several handicapped people in need of surgeries and other special services available only at the National Rehabilitation Center. The last time we made a similar run, our truck broke down late in the day and we had a devil of a time moving the amputees from roadside to guesthouse without a working vehicle.

Route 13, running between the southern provinces and the capital, is one of the best roads in Laos but often the traffic flow is more stop than go.  Recent flooding of the Mekong had washed away large sections of the pavement, adding a new hazard to the usual inconveniences: slow moving tractors, people pushing handcarts, school children on bikes, villagers walking three abreast, indecisive dogs and goats, confident pigs with impaired sense of direction; and cows lazily chewing their cud right smack in the middle of the road.

Planning for our trip started the night before when I made driving assignments for the next day.  I asked both of our drivers to be on the road before first light, one headed north on the dirt road out of our camp, the other south.  They were to drive to distant villages, collect our handicapped passengers, and be back to camp by 8:00 am.  I cautioned them about lollygagging along the way: “Everybody who’s on time gets breakfast in camp.  Latecomers will have to settle for sticky rice in the moving truck.”  I was emphatic that, this trip, I didn’t want to be on the road after dark with a truckload of disabled passengers.

The two drivers immediately appraised the situation and realized that one of them was going to have a considerably shorter run than the other and therefore could easily catch another half-hour of sack time before heading out in the morning.

Bounam spoke up.  “Instead of me, I think Bounthavee should make the run to Tha Lang and pick up Polio Girl.  Her house is easy to find.  I’ll drive down to Ban Sop On and pick up the guy with no arms.  I know where his house is.  We’ll lose time if Bounthavee can’t find the guy.”

Bounthavee saw through the ploy and wasn’t about to give up the shorter drive and more time in bed before departure: “Don’t worry.  I’ll find the guy with no arms.  If I can’t find his house, I’ll ask around the village.  How many guys can there be in Ban Sop On without arms?”  Yai settled the argument by pointedly telling Bounthavee, “His name is Ta.  Don’t bring us the wrong one.”

I rolled out of bed before dawn and was pleased to see that both trucks had already left camp.  And, sure enough, both drivers were back with their passengers in time for a big communal Lao breakfast: fish soup, boiled greens, sticky rice and, a concession to me, scrambled eggs.

Ta, a double amputee since his accident with a cluster bomb, was returning to Vientiane to have his prostheses refitted and repaired.  He showed up armless.  His wife carried both of his artificial arms in an old rice bag.

I gave Ta a good ribbing, reminding him that the last two times he traveled with me he also had his arms off.  Then, when there was work to be done, like loading the truck or pushing it out of the mud, he excused himself from helping.  Ta laughed and pled innocent, claiming “coincidence.”

I told him I’d accept “coincidence” as a defense once, maybe twice, but not three times.   So this trip, I told him, if we need his help he’d better get those arms on quick.  During breakfast, as had been the practice in his family prior to his getting new arms, his wife patiently pushed finger food into his mouth and periodically held a cup of water to his lips.

Latsamee, the nine-year-old that my teammates all call “Polio Girl,” was too excited to eat.  To clarify, I must point out that the guys have misdiagnosed Latsamee’s condition.  Polio is not an uncommon illness in the villages here and the guys have correctly noted that Latsamee shares some characteristics with the polio victims that they’ve met.  However, I’ve repeatedly pointed out that Latsamee has cerebral palsy, not polio, and with Yai interpreting I’ve done my best to explain the difference.  The guys never fail to thank me for helping them better understand.  Then, they continue to call her Polio Girl.

Not that Latsamee’s parents seem to care that people forsake her given name and refer to her by a medical condition.  Interestingly, I’ve discovered that it’s common for Lao villagers to actually name a child after a birth defect or other prominent physical feature.  I know two boys who each were born with a cleft lip.  In both cases the parents named the child Vieng, meaning “Hole-in-the-Lip”.  Even after surgery to repair the condition the boys are still Hole-in-the-Lip to everyone in their respective villages.

Right after breakfast Yai turned on the CD player in the truck and selected his favorite Lao travel song.  Then he cranked up the volume so everybody in the village would know that we lucky souls were about to depart for the big city.  (In America Willie Nelson would have alerted my neighbors that I was on the road again, but this is Laos and Yai’s the guy in control of the CD’s).   Our passengers all caught the infectious, happy mood of the music and without being directed, cheerfully piled into the back of the truck, each ready to begin a personal adventure.

The trip to Vientiane from our village begins with a two to three hour drive (time varies according to the weather and the hazard-of-the-day) on a gravel road that winds down our mountain and takes us to Thakek, the provincial capitol, where we turn onto a paved road and start making better time.  But, before Thakek we had several stops to make.

An hour out of Odoumsouk we turned onto the narrow dirt track (more footpath than road) that leads to Don Peuay village.  Yai and I had been in that village a month earlier looking for ordnance and we had crossed paths with a teenager hobbling along on homemade crutches, obviously favoring one leg.

The young man, named Bounmee, told us that during the Lao holiday of Pi Mai he’d fallen off a motorcycle and broken the big bone in his thigh.  His family didn’t have the money to take him to a hospital so no one had set the fracture and the leg had yet to heal.  The boy invited me to feel the large lump in his thigh where the ends of the two segments of bone nestled side by side.   I could indeed feel the ends shift and rub together when he moved his leg.  He told me that his leg pained him all the time.  That was easy for me to believe.

My first calculation had the accident occurring about five months earlier, during the holiday season past.  In my mind, I conjured up an estimate of how well his injury should have improved over that period of time.  Then, it dawned on me that the boy wasn’t talking about this year’s celebration but last!  He’d been hobbling along on that sore leg for nearly eighteen months.

I pointed out to Bounmee’s parents the fairly obvious: if their son’s leg hadn’t properly healed after all these months, his condition wasn’t likely to improve much in the years ahead.  I asked them questions that they had probably asked themselves many times: “How will your son make a living?  He can’t work in the rice fields.  How will he find a wife?  No one wants to marry a man who can’t work.”

Then, I told Bounmee and his parents about services available at the National Rehabilitation Center.  Yai shared stories about other patients we’ve taken there and described successes that we’ve seen.   I cautioned them that surgery was almost a certainty and predicted that a full recovery could take weeks or even months.

The good news, I told the parents, was that I knew of funding that would pay for their son’s medical treatment and physical therapy.  Eventually, Bounmee’s parents overcame their initial skepticism and agreed to let me take him to Vientiane.

With Bounmee on board, we had just one more planned stop.  A couple of hours farther north at Lao Louang village we expected to collect Mye, a fun-loving old rascal who had survived a deadly snakebite a few years earlier but had lost a sizable portion of his foot to the nasty infection that resulted.

I first took Mye to the rehab center six months ago.  At that time therapists fitted him with an elaborate device to wear on his lower leg; it was part splint, part prosthesis and part orthotic shoe.  While the unique device greatly improved Mye’s mobility, it hindered his range of motion and made it difficult for him to stoop or kneel.  (A significant loss, since much of the farm work that Lao villagers do is stoop labor.  And equally significant, toilets in Laos are “squatters” not “sitters”.  Mye had not only to drop him pants to make number two, he had to take off his leg).

Having a lot of time to study the device, Mye had conjured up a modification.  He was confident that if someone sawed away the hard plastic portion of his orthotic that blocked his knee from fully bending he would be able to stoop and kneel in greater comfort.  He knew that he’d lose some of the firm support that the device gave his lower leg but he figured he could happily live with that disadvantage if the tradeoff was the ability to stoop, bend, or rest on his haunches.

Mye’s confidence was just a smidgen short of what was needed for him to start hacking away at the device with his own saw.  The last time I saw him he reluctantly agreed with me that it would be best to wait and let the experts in Vientiane make the modifications.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a way of communicating with Mye between my trips past his village and it seems that whenever we do cross paths I’m headed in the wrong direction. On this day I planned to just drop by, catch him by surprise, and offer him a ride to the rehab center.

It would have been Mye’s lucky day if he had been able to drop everything and climb on board.  Unfortunately, Mye was in no condition to climb.  He was drunk as a skunk.  Not tipsy.  Not buzzed.  Not half –crocked.  Mye was clobbered.

Nevertheless, I briefly considered taking him with us.  I figured that if Yai, the driver, the other passengers and I worked together (“Ta, put on your arms and help us carry Mye!”) we could get him to the truck.  I figured he’d sleep most of the remaining way to Vientiane and maybe be half sober by the time we arrived.

Mye looked at his leg and briefly considered going with us but then declined. He didn’t want to leave the party he had going, even to improve his leg.  (We arrived at Mye’s house about noon.  Mye and all his guests were all happily soused, their having polished off several bottles of lao-lao, a high-octane rice whiskey akin to American moonshine. It could be that the party started early but more likely it was simply continuing from the night before).

We left with Mye drunkenly promising me: “Next time.  Next time.”  And then the ominous comment, “Maybe I do myself.”

There might not be a next time.  What Mye doesn’t know is how hard it is for Yai and me to convince ourselves to stop by his village and then walk through brambles, brush and tall grass to reach his house.  His village is a hotbed of snakes!

Mye lost most of his foot to snakebite.  One of his nephews lost a leg.  Another nephew died.  According to Mye, just about every household in the village has had someone bitten, and all by the same species: the Malayan Pit Viper.   On our previous stop, back in July, Mye told us, “Yep.  Another girl died.”  Hardly news to encourage visitors.

Reluctantly leaving Mye behind, we all climbed back onboard the truck to complete the last leg of our trip, hopeful that if our luck held we’d make Vientiane before nightfall.

The story of our arrival at the Rehab Center will continue in my next journal entry.

End of Part 1

Leave a Reply