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Light in a dark place

By Simon Speakman Cordall in HCMC
Saturday,  Jun 30,2012,10:49 (GMT+7)
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Light in a dark place

By Simon Speakman Cordall in HCMC

Finding space in a room designed for four - Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall
It’s 5.30pm on Wednesday and the Children’s Cancer Ward at Ung Buou Cancer Hospital is busy. Families make temporary camps down the hallways, taking turns to rest on the mats they have brought with them. Rooms designed for four, strain to accommodate numbers of up to forty, as everyone makes themselves as comfortable as they can to best get through another day in the ward.

In total, there are twelve nurses here, providing care to 180 sick and terminally ill children. It must be an impossible job. However, it’s not until you consider the scale of that job that the importance of the families’ presence becomes so apparent. Given their presence, they’re perfectly positioned to provide a blanket covering of care that would be hard to match elsewhere. Seen firsthand, their commitment to supporting their children is amazing. Ung Buou caters for the poorest families from across the South. They come here from afar as the Highlands to the Mekong Delta. Seven year old Giang,  from Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta has been living here, accompanied by his family, for seven months now.  Like many from the Mekong Delta region, Giang’s family are farmers, and it has fallen to his Aunt’s family work their farm while the family wait it out in Saigon.

Unfortunately, with so many families crammed into such a small area, space is at a premium. Meals are often prepared within the ward, as often as not within the same room as a child receiving treatment. Bich, (5) her brother and her mother have found a space on the stairs today. Bich has been here for four months now. Luckily, coming from a family of seven, the work on the farm can be spread around, meaning that, as often as not, Bich will have a parent and a brother with her at most times.

The toilets are at the furthest end of the ward; small, cramped and uni-sex, these have to cater not only to the sanitary requirements of the families resident here, but also to the endless parade of cooking equipment brought here after mealtimes. It would be a strained situation at the best of times. However, when you also consider that this small space must accommodate the frequently urgent needs of small children undergoing the rigours of chemotherapy, it’s a true testament to the family’s patience that the system holds together at all.

75% of the children currently staying in Ung Buou’s children’s cancer ward will not likely recover. It’s hard not to be carried away with the tragedy of that statistic. These things should not happen to children.  However, to dwell on that number alone is to miss the point. Children will always be children and, watching Bich pose for pictures with her family, or seeing Giang play with my camera and howl with delight on seeing his picture on the display panel, is to miss the joy that these children bring with them; no matter what the circumstances they’re in, or no matter how dark a place that might be.

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