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Your Blood or Their Life


Her name, Lay Eng, is etched forever in my memory. It was an unexpected meeting under sad circumstances, but Lay Eng made me aware of an urgent issue facing Cambodia: the dengue crisis.

Cambodia is relying on travellers for help.

Dengue fever is an annual epidemic in Cambodia. Although the health officials expect the epidemic of the haemorrhagic fever, an acute blood shortage means hospitals cannot provide vital treatment to everyone.

The three of us – Taura, Naomi and I – had heard countless tragedies: death under the Khmer Rouge, dengue fever, and landmine accidents. We were volunteers at The Landmine Museum and social issues were having an increasingly personal impact. Our personal awareness of the dengue crisis eventuated from our friend, Houat, waking us early one morning.

“You have to get up now!” Houat summons us.
We struggle out of our mosquito nets, tired and bleary-eyed. Houat tells us the daughter of her friend’s neighbour is severely ill with dengue fever.  The hospital does not have her blood type. There is literally none in stock.

Houat wants us to go to the hospital and make blood donations for the little girl. 
“You have to go now.” Houat insists.

Naomi declines as she is taking anti-malarial tablets, but Taura and I have stopped taking our medication. According to the locals the jungle has malaria; in town we have dengue to contend with. How true this adage is, I’m unsure, but Houat’s words reverberate in my mind as we motor into town.

“She has fever for many days. This is the eighth day of fever. Cambodians say if you survive the eighth day, you will be very, very strong for the rest of your life!”

The guard at the hospital gate directs us across the yard. Women and children sit on mats in the shade, quietly and patiently waiting.  A doctor comes out to meet us and hurries us through the building.  Horror stories of Third World hospitals are a far cry from what we see passing through the corridors.  The hospital is spotlessly clean.

Blood donors are given a comfortable couch in a backroom. Houat’s friend, Von, arrives happy to see us.  The doctor talks to four teenage boys sitting opposite us, then ushers one boy to the consultation room. Everyone else waits patiently.  Many people have come to donate today. 

Another doctor hands us forms and asks a question that confuses me: if we are not the same blood type as the little girl, will we make a donation anyway?

The doctor is relieved at our reply. We want to make our donations to the hospital first and foremost, but hope one of us can help the little girl.  The teenage boys are still waiting ahead of us, so Von escorts Taura and me to the children’s ward.

In a bed by the far window a small girl lays quietly, her parents at her bedside, their faces distraught. Everyone exchanges nods and sad smiles.  Looking at this child and her family, I suddenly feel overwrought. I glance at the whiteboard above the bed to distract myself from tears. 

Lay Eng is the name of this girl. 

Lay Eng’s eyes are dark and huge against her elfin face. Her thin arms lie listless at her sides. Her breathing is shallow. Lay Eng’s father strokes her hair and she looks up at him briefly before her gaze settles on me, Taura, and finally, Von.  Tears are brimming behind our smiles. Lay Eng is exhausted and disinterested in the small crowd around her bed.  She gives a deep sigh and looks over at her mother. 

There is an icepack on her stomach and for a fleeting moment I wonder, in horror, is this to control Lay Eng’s temperature or is she already haemorrhaging? I quickly push the thought aside, anxious not to jinx her.  We make our farewells and go back to the donation couch to wait our turn. 

Now dengue has a human face; someone more real than any aid organisation’s photograph or televised plea.

When our turn comes, the doctor tells us about Cambodia’s medical situation.  Westerners are the best source of blood donations because of the prevalence of HIV amongst Cambodians.  But, he stresses, there is an acute shortage of blood. 

I think of an Australian woman I met a few weeks ago.  She had made a donation at one of the children’s hospitals in Siem Reap town. 

“I knew it would be safe but I checked the equipment, anyway,” she told me, “See, I always give blood in Australia, so why not here? They bloody well need it, that’s for sure!” 

I wondered why we westerners assume that all hospitals in the Third World will be dirty places, instead of taking the time to check facilities for ourselves and make an informed decision? Cambodia’s professionals have first world equipment and standards of hygiene, but fears of disease make us travellers reluctant to consider, let alone enquire, about blood donation.

We sit on the donation couch, waiting for our results.  The doctors return to report they can use Taura’s blood for Lay Eng immediately. Mine will go into stock for someone else. We head home, jubilant and hopeful for Lay Eng. 

Back at The Landmine Museum, everyone is waiting. The doctor had said he would take donations from people on anti-malarial drugs. Naomi can donate also.  Things are just so desperate here.

That afternoon I meet a number of visitors to the Museum who are interested in Lay Eng’s story, even two people of her blood type. They agree make donations.

We clung to the hope that Lay Eng would survive her eighth day, but she passed away the following morning. The grief we felt was for Lay Eng, her family, and for the hundreds of other families who will lose their children to dengue fever.

On a happier note, the blood we donated to the hospital will certainly go toward someone’s treatment.

Lay Eng gave me impetus to make people aware of Cambodia’s health crisis, to ask people to consider different ways of helping as travellers.

It’s not just about giving money, clothes or pencils. A blood donation is such a simple, valuable act.

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