January 2012 Blinded and Disfigured by a Bombie
One day in January 2012, two-year old Kayeng Yang followed his two teenage uncles (Mr. Vaneng Yang- 16 and Mr. Sue Yang – 15) to where they were cutting sugar cane. The sugar cane field was only 20 feet from their home. It was a cold morning, so the uncles started a fire to keep warm. While warming their hands, the hot fire heated a bombie that was resting underneath the ground for over 35 years. A vestige from the US Secret War, the bombie exploded. Kayeng was standing closest to the explosion. The bombie shattered his cheek bone. He was blinded. A piece of shrapnel is lodged above his left eye in addition to his left eye being infected. Kayeng continually presses his eye to relieve the gnawing pain. (The parents had no idea he had an serious eye infection.) The explosion melted his right nostril shut so he has difficulty breathing.
November, 27 2012 – 10 Months Later
Give Children A Choice’s Dori and Barbara Shimoda, longtime coordinator Thongchanh, and two friends Fah and Chuck drove from Vientiane to Kayeng’s house in Thong Village, Khoun District in Xieng Khouang Province. It was a long and arduous drive. There was a mountain landslide and we had to wait for the road to be cleared. The main road stopped at the San River, where we took a makeshift ferry across.
Just before we arrived at Kayeng’s house, located up on a hill in Ban Thong in Xieng Khouang little 2 year old Kayeng heard our approaching footsteps and voices. He immediately came barreling from his house and straddling 2 wooden small stools for us to sit on. He is so tiny, he almost fell over trying to hold on to both of them. Apparently the stools were heavier than him. Hearing many footsteps, we saw him hurrying, running to and from the house with more stools. He walked towards each one of us, patted the stool he gave us and motioned each one of us to sit down. Being blind, he felt the surface of his stool with his hands and then slowly shifted his body and sat where his hands just explored. His hearing knew exactly where we sat. He looked at each of us and talked to us. He is barefooted, but nimble and agile enough for all of us to believe that he could see until we saw his eyes. He was blind.
Sitting on the little stools Kayeng took such effort to bring to us, we all couldn’t help taking in all of his enthusiasm. Prior to meeting him, we knew nothing about this little boy except that he was a baby who was hurt in an UXO incident. Despite his injuries, we saw a very happy little boy. He was a very chatty boy, excited to welcome his guests, as we are also very happy to meet him. Then, in one moment, he paused and winced, holding his little hand up to his left eye to get through apparent pain. He was tearing and applied pressure to his eye to ease the pain. He repeated this ritual many times during our short visit. We knew that he was experiencing great discomfort.
We met his mother who was sitting and watchful of her gregarious little son, but was engrossed in breastfeeding and tending to her six-week old newborn. She is only 19 years old and has suffered the trauma of seeing her firstborn son so horribly hurt by the UXO. She seems to be still in shock, denial and has not dealt with it emotionally. We asked if we could ask her a few questions about the accident that damaged little Kayeng. She nodded yes, but was quiet and later said she was too shy to answer.
Three generations of the Yang family live in the tiny Hmong home. It has no windows and dirt floors. Ten people live in this tiny home with no electricity or running water. They go down to the river to fetch water for cooking, washing and to use for their outhouse. The rainy season weather has lasted longer than normal in Xieng Khouang this year, so the red soiled ground is muddy and littered with cow dung everywhere.
A handsome older woman came out of the house to sweep up the dung to avoid our stepping on it. She engaged with us in conversation, when questions were posed to Kayeng’s shy mother. She introduced herself as Kayeng’s grandmother. Shortly thereafter, her husband Mr. Yang joins us. They explained that they are no strangers to UXO accidents, which has plagued them for years. Seven years ago, their 13 year old son died from an exploding bombie. She also lost her daughter to a sudden illness. Now, she was living her nightmare all over again. Her two younger sons were hit with flying shrapnel, which impaled their faces and chests. Luckily, they didn’t lose a limb, eyesight, or suffer any major damage to their vital organs. Both uncles were scarred, but able to return to school and will live physically normal lives.
Teary eyed, the grandparents spoke softly about that fateful day when Kayeng and his uncles lives changed forever. The sugar cane field they live next to is infested with UXOs. It has been this way since the US Secret War. No one has come to remove them or even suggest that any of the organizations come and remove these weapons of destruction. Upon recently finding yet another one in the field, they called the government UXO removal company, UXO LAO to remove it. UXO LAO came one month after their removal request, but only the one reported. No effort was made to clear the land that has plagued this family.
The Yang family is poor with little resources. They have no choice but take dangerous chances to farm their limited land, which continues to this very day to claim innocent lives.
Despite the strains and hardships they’ve endured, Mr. and Mrs. Yang remain a very handsome looking couple. They are strong, reliant and deal with the life they have been given. Dori asks Mrs. Yang, the matriarch of the family, how she handles these tragedies. She responded by saying that they work hard to ensure family peace and harmony. She said that she tries to forget the past, accept it and move on. She doesn’t want the bad times to overcome the good times. But at the same time, she said that she is worried about the future and wants her children and grandchildren to be safe. She is particularly worried about Kayeng. She does not see a good future for him. She became teary eyed. We paused and took a break from this emotional moment.
In the mean time, Kayeng is running about bonding and entertaining his guests. He is so cute and adorable, we forget about his disability. He stole our hearts. We noticed that Kayeng exhibited many signs of being quite smart. We asked his grandmother about his mental status. She said Kayeng is very sharp. He does not miss a beat. She asked him if he wanted to be a soldier when he grows up. (So, it is our experience that every time we ask a little boy what he wants to be, he inevitably says he wants to be a soldier.) Not Kayeng. He exclaimed , “When I grow up, I want to go to America and Korea.” He has obviously been exposed to the outside world because he has had many visitors, since his accident.
His grandmother mentioned that a while back, a group of Korean visitors came to her home to see Kayeng. After meeting him and falling in love with him as we had, they jokingly offered to take Kayeng to Korea. After a short ride in their car down a road and upon returning home, the grandmother asked if he went to Korea. Kayeng said, “No, they just took me down the road.” When told where the bombie came from, he said that “America gave me a special present.”
As we got friendlier and closer with Kayeng, we were all shocked to see what the explosion had done to him. Barbara, a registered nurse, couldn’t help but ask to learn more about Kayeng’s physical condition and to examine him with his grandmother’s permission.
- Both eyes are severely impaired and disfigured by the explosion. The left eye appeared sightless; seems less affected by the explosion, but this is the eye that causes the acute pain as he demonstrates constant guarding behavior whenever he feels it. The x-ray taken at the hospital provided by his grandmother showed that there is still a piece of shrapnel imbedded behind his eye. This might explain the reason why he exhibits this behavior whenever he does anything like running, laughing, or playing.
- Right eye sightless; seems infected; bulging and drooping is caused by the possible shattered orbital space, which holds the eye in place.
- Right nostril is non-existent due to extensive scarring resulting from injury. Breathing is limited to the left nostril only and seems labored at times.
- Facial scarring extends down the right side of his lips causing him to have trouble opening it to eat.
Barbara was not able to examine the rest of his body. He was so active and rambunctious. From observing how he was so active, she assumes he is fine.
Mrs. Yang, again, started to describe the horror of that day, when the 3 boys went into the field to cut sugar cane not 20 feet from the house. Everyone heard the explosion. Immediately, all the villagers mobilized to where the sound was heard. There, they found three bodies unconscious and blood was everywhere. Kayeng, the smallest of the three was bleeding from his head, face and had a blue pallor. She thought he was dead, but he was still breathing abate very shallow. They were all rushed to the Mongolian Friendship Hospital for treatment. X rays were taken. They were stitched up with shrapnel now part of their bodies because they lack the technology to remove the objects. Kayeng cried of pain for 3 months straight. Grandma kept him quiet by singing and telling him stories. One day he stopped crying and started to play and move about even though he couldn’t see. She says he is very independent and does not want to be told what to do.
Kayeng is horribly disfigured and blind. Mrs. Yang recanted to Barbara that she lost a son from a previous bombie explosion only seven years ago. She told her she was shocked to be living this nightmare all over again three times. It was too much to bear, but she was determined to keep a brave attitude about it. Barbara asks her if they had to do it all over again, would she have them go into that field again. She exhibits a tortured look on her face. The irony is that she has no choice. Her family has no choice. This field has provided sustenance for their daily lives, but it has come with a big sacrifice. Her boys are afraid of the field. Kayeng never goes there. Even though he is not able to see where he is going, instinctively, he avoids moving toward that direction which is just to the right of the house. Eventually, the need to survive will overcome the fear and cause them to reenter the field, back to where life and limb are held in the balance. But for now, only the grandfather is brave enough to go back in there.
It was getting late and we had gotten so comfortable there that we almost forgot that we needed to finish our task of visiting the other bomb survivors on our list, so we gave out donated clothing we received to Mr. Yang, a former village leader, to share with the village children (The village leader was working in the field). We thank Maggie Wong , Tse Mui Ying and their friends from Hong Kong for collecting and sending the clothes. We also distributed goodie bags filled with nutritional and hygiene products. Kayeng had already gone through his stash and changed into a very nice shirt and shorts ensemble.
It was now time to go. We all bowed and “nopped”. Barbara looked over to Mrs. Yang and felt what she really needed was a big hug. She went over to her with hands out wide and gave her that much need hug. Mrs. Yang returned the hug with an even bigger and tighter one. It was a hug of one woman’s desperation to save her family, a hug which transcended all barriers to communication, told a story of a mother’s immense suffering. It reinforced her pleas to implore to the world outside to help relieve her of this monster plague of UXOs, which have caused so much heartache and pain to her family over the years. She did not want to let go and Barbara didn’t want to let her go either. Both women, neither speaking nor understanding each other’s language, were able to communicate very effectively through the act of hugging each other.
After they kissed and parted, Barbara knew that Give Children A Choice would need to really get involved to help them. She made Mrs. Yang a promise that she will do her best to make sure Kayeng would get the medical help he needed. They both sobbed tears of sorrow and pain for Kayeng. Turning to Dori, Barbara talked to him about the donation from the Laguna Blanca School. He immediately took out two crisp $100 bills to present to Mrs. Yang. It was going to be Hmong New year soon. This would come in very handy for them to celebrate a better new year. We shared that the money should help cover extra food and some new clothes, school supplies, tuition and future medical bills for the children. The Yang family was very surprised. In fact, they were speechless. The look on their face was like they won the lottery. Mrs. Yang grabbed Barbara hands and kept holding them and bowing profusely. We were not sure if she was laughing or crying all at the same time. It was another very emotional moment.
What Can We Do?
So, we found ourselves committed to help Kayeng, but we had more questions than answers? Where do we start? Who do we know? How do we convince a doctor or doctors to care about helping Kayeng? Where do we find the medical specialists to help Kayeng? What kind of medical specialists? What kind of government red tape is there? The questions were endless.
We started with LinkedIn. We found a US-trained, Lao doctor who plans to travel to Laos from Boston in February on a medical mission. He is a Otolaryngologist – Head & Neck Surgeon/Facial Plastic Surgeon. Just from one picture and after two days of email exchanges, he offered to take care of Kayeng’s breathing problem. From there, with some creative sleuthing, three days later, again after a flurry of email exchanges, we had agreement from the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation founder (Napa Valley, CA), two western-trained Lao opthamologists, and an Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Opthamologist/Surgeon from the well-known Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok to help Kayeng. The Bumrungrad surgeon wrote to us, “Even though he has blindness on both eyes, we can not let him feel pain every time he moves his eyes for the rest of his life.”
The assessment process has already begun only six days after our visit to Kayeng’s home. With Thongchanh’s help, Kayeng has met the opthamologist at the Mongolian Friendship Hospital in Phonsavan on December 3rd. He was invited to meet the Oudomxai eye clinic director and the Bumrungrad surgeon in Luang Prabang on December 19th.
The surgeon’s recommendation is to complete a cat scan as soon as possible. (There are no CT machines in Laos to our knowledge, although we learned that one will arrive this week from Indiana.) The Lao Rehabilitation Foundation is prepared to have a team of doctors work on Kayeng at the Japanese-funded, Settharith Hospital in Vientiane this February 2013.
While it appears that the doctors are willing to provide their services pro bono, we will have to cover logistics and other hospital-related expenses. Kayeng’s family is a poor family with barely sufficient land to grow rice and vegetables to support themselves, let alone the finances to travel or to afford sophisticated medical treatment.
Even with the creative sleuthing, the inflow of such immediate responsive support from around the globe could not be just coincidental.
For Kayeng’s family, Hmong New Years begins this month. Your gift of kindness will make this a very special New Years for this family who has suffered silently for so many years. While this will be a long journey to improve Kai yeng’s quality of life, they will be forever grateful.