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Two and half year old Nuon Lek was brought to see the TLC team because she had a runny nose caused by nothing more serious than a common cold.
click on photo to enlarge

Here in Cambodia she is described as having an "elephant face". It is a facial meningocele and is caused by a failure of the bones in the skull to fully close. Mom had no idea that anything could be done to help her baby. Everyone she talked to in the village thought she just had "bad luck".

Lek's a charmer, and like many youngsters she is in love with the sound of her own voice. Her laughter can and does fill the available space around her. It's regrettable that there are no pictures of her smiling, but coming from Pek Chikrey she has never seen a white face before and the sight of me (as well as my size) is just too scary.

When we returned to the office after that first meeting a few months ago, I contacted Dr. Jim Gallogly at the Children's Surgical Center in Phnom Penh. Dr. Jim immediately set a future date for Lek to come to the center to be evaluated by a team of visiting surgeons, and we made plans to bring Lek and her mom from Pek Chikrey first to Siem Reap and then to Phnom Penh.

On the 18th of June mother and daughter made the five hour boat trip from Pek Chikrey to Kompong Khleang, and then for a first-time-in-their-lives automobile trip from Kompong Khleang to their lodging in Siem Reap where they stayed the night. The next morning they were escorted to Phnom Penh by Dr. Sambun who brought them by bus--another 5 hour ride--to the Children's Surgical Center and met with the doctors there.

The operation took place on June 23rd. This is not "routine surgery" at all and requires a highly skilled team from different specialties. This surgery is offered free of charge.

Ten days later I went to Phnom Penh and stopped by to see Lek and her mom. Lek was not happy to see me at all. I had planned to try and bring her and her mom to one of the larger restaurants overlooking the Mekong for lunch, but Lek's fear of me was overwhelming even to the other patients and families in the ward. I know when to retreat.

By July 9th Lek and mom were on their way back to Pek Chikrey aboard the TLC-1, and their arrival back in the village was The Event with just about everyone wanting to come to see how (and if) Lek had been helped.

The time for her follow up came last week, and we brought Lek and her mom back with us again from Pek Chikrey to Siem Reap on the 23rd of July. Lek was....ok around me, as long as I didn't make eye-contact with her. The next day we travelled together to Phnom Penh in TLC's 17 year old Landcruiser, as I continued to avoid looking directly at Lek.

It was a long ride. Mom thought that if she spoke Khmer LOUD enough then I would be better able to understand her village dialect. Lek was car sick much of the way and didn't always let mom know when she needed a pee break. I was exhausted from three mostly sleepless days out on the lake; worrying about budgets, and the number of suicidally-intent water buffaloes stepping out in front of the 100 kph Landcruiser seemed larger than ever and kept my mood rather tense, perhaps a bit irritable. You could say that I was cranky.

I fell into a rather sullen silence half-way to Phnom Penh.

Then I heard something that changed everything, and like putting on a new pair of glasses my outlook changed. Lek was laughing. Giggling and talking to herself in that way children have of doing when they feel safe and loved. I caught a glimpse of mom and Lek sitting together in the back and I thought...this is why we're doing what we're doing. It's that simple.