Post by Bong Srey Kat Chma (a.k.a. Kate Bernoske)
It’s not that I don’t like to talk about Wat Opot (ask anyone who has spent more than 20 minutes with me), it’s just that I don’t know what to say when someone asks me “oh you’re going to Cambodia- what for?” How do I explain what it is that I do here and what I have here. I usually lie and say I’m going on vacation or to travel. It’s easier than explaining that 4 years ago I stumbled upon a large family in the middle of rice fields and coconut trees in rural Cambodia, and that now I am a big sister, a friend, and a caregiver to over 50 kids, young adults, and staff members that have taken me in as their own.
When I do explain Wat Opot, I say that it was started as an AIDS hospice, which over time transitioned to a children’s home when dying parents left their children behind. I don’t like to use the word orphanage. It conjures up a negative image of poor, sad, lonely children. Though the residents of Wat Opot may have been orphaned, they are not orphans. And though Wat Opot may be the home to orphaned children, it is not an orphanage. It is a family. A large, happy, fun loving family with brothers and sisters that fight and play, and make each other cry, but ultimately love one another. Once a place for death and dying, Wat Opot is now full of life.
When I first arrived in July 2010, the crematorium was still warm from a baby that had died just a few days earlier. She was an exception, Wayne explained, and had been one of few deaths in the years since the hospice doors were closed. There were signs then that roughly half of the kids and staff members were HIV positive. Some of the little kids had fungal infections on their heads, there were open Herpes zoster sores, and when a stomach bug or fever raged though the village, it seemed the seropositive kids took a little longer to recover, their little bodies fighting alongside their ARV medications, trying to keep up. By the time I went home to America in November 2011, the only evidence of HIV at Wat Opot were the lines of kids waiting to take their meds at 6:30 AM and 6:30 PM, and the groups that piled into tuktuks every few weeks going to the Takeo HIV clinic for checkups, blood work, and medication refills. Everyone was happy and everyone was healthy, so it seemed.
Five months later, in April 2012, just a few weeks before I would return for a visit, I got word that my buddy Lan Krome had lost his battle against AIDS, succumbing to tuberculosis of the intestines. I was stunned, and couldn’t really believe it until I came and saw his picture on the memorial wall in the crematorium building. When I came back I could feel his absence, and see the pain on the eyes of his mother Hong Pheup, who resumed work in the kitchen right where her son had been laying during the day as his illness progressed. Lan Krome was a painful reminder that while Wat Opot looks happy and healthy and alive, the deadly HIV virus is still here.
In the the two years since Lan Krome’s death, Wat Opot has returned to business as usual. The kids are thriving in school and in health. The rice fields are bountiful, and life is good. Once again the trace of HIV at Wat Opot has been reduced to lines twice a day, and the occasional pile of kids in tuktuks, going for checkups and medication refills.
July 23, 2014. I make my sixth trip back here to Wat Opot. My heart beats faster as butterflies flutter in my stomach while my tuktuk takes a familiar drive down a familiar dirt road leading to my favorite place in this world. I am swarmed with hugs and kisses as my little brothers and sisters run to greet me and my heart is full again, almost. Something is missing and the absence is palpable.
Since day one, there has been a special little place in my heart for Ty Meng. She’s not very feminine, doesn’t like to be hugged, and has gotten used to volunteers overlooking her for other girls who demand more attention. She’s rough with the kittens and puppies but they still flock to her. Her hair styles have been questionable even for Khmer standards. When I first met her, she had a boys haircut, she was wearing a shirt that said “I am a cat like robot,” with red cargo shorts and tiny pink sandals. Since then she’s been my girl, and usually one of my first hugs when I return. This return, however, she was not waiting to greet me, but laying in a hospital bed in Takeo.
Ty Meng’s body held out for a long time before she needed to be put on ARV medications. It was September 2011 and the initiation of drugs made her sick, febrile, and weak. I had the honor to care for her while her body got used to the medications, and when she let me carry her home from the clinic one afternoon, too tired to walk, I knew that I had finally won her trust. Now on second line ARV’s, her body is losing its fight against AIDS. I travelled to Takeo as soon as possible to see her but wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The silly playful girl I left on my last trip in February was weak and impossibly thin. She barely reacted when she saw me and I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. Her doctor told me she was being treated for acute malnutrition related to enterocolitis, and anemia. She has had multiple blood transfusions and is being treated with IV nutrition. Nobody seems to know her prognosis or when she can come home to Wat Opot. During my four visits to her this past week, I just held her hand, fed her rice porridge, and washed her hair. Little things that made me feel like I’m helping when I couldn’t feel more helpless.
Getting to the hospital is not easy. It requires a mile walk to the road, and hitchhiking about an hour to Takeo. Today, my final day before leaving Cambodia again, I made another trip to see her and to say goodbye, maybe for the last time. As I watched her sleep, I thought again about Lan Krome, and how again after years of health and prosperity, the HIV virus interrupts to remind us it’s still here.
As programs and funding are being cut for HIV/AIDS organizations across Cambodia and the rest of the third world, I wonder what is to come in the years ahead. Medication, primary healthcare, and nutrition have been readily available in the past few years, and survival has been on the rise. But what happens next after the resources are gone? There will be more Ty Mengs and maybe a relapse in need for the AIDS hospice.
Tonight sitting in the famous yellow swing at Wat Opot one of girls asked me “Kat tomorrow you go home, you cry?” “Yes”, I said. “I will probably cry like I usually do”. “No Kat, you not cry. You always come back. I wait here you.” I know I have a lifelong commitment to Wat Opot. I don’t know who will be here waiting, but I always come back.