Five months ago, a good friend of mine packed only a backpack, a camera, and some sandals and began a year-long journey of volunteering in the poorest nations in the world. The first stop on her trip was Cambodia, an underdeveloped Asian nation bordering Vietnam and Thailand.
Nine thousand miles from our mountain home here in Emmitsburg, Maryland is an orphanage on a dirt road in the small town of Cambodia’s Kampong Thom Province, near Siem Reap. The orphanage is called the Shelter of Love and is home to over fifty orphaned children of all ages who have been abandoned, abused, or otherwise forgotten. These children are given opportunities to learn English and the scripture with the help of staff from Cambodia and around the world.
One of these children was a very special case. In November, my friend put me in contact with the caretaker a nine-month-old baby girl named Lydia at the orphanage, and I immediately fell in love with her incredible story of faith, love, and strength. Lydia was born prematurely, as many children with defects do in countries with poor medical care. She struggled to grow without the advanced technology that we have taken for granted here in the United States and in other developed countries. The most remarkable thing about her is that she was born with a heart defect that left her with only three chambers in her heart instead of four, and her blood circulation is so poor that her hands, lips, and feet are blue and purple. Normally, operations to correct this defect in the United States would be done as soon as possible after birth, but her physically abusive father had no money or incentive to get the help she needed.
Eventually their neighbors convinced her abusive father to leave Lydia at the orphanage where she would be given the care and love she so desperately needed. Unfortunately, she was left with scars, injuries, and a lazy eye.
In the hope that her condition could be helped, Lydia’s caretakers at the Shelter of Love tried taking her to the hospital a few hours away in Siem Reap. Instead, they left with the worst news possible: she was inoperable, and very soon she would stop growing, her heart would cease to pump, and she would die.
My friend heard this news shortly after her arrival and was heartbroken. She reached out me with her medical records, but they were all in French and very poorly done. With little hope I talked to an incredible mentor of mine, a Johns Hopkins surgeon, that I’ve apprenticed under for nearly three years. Over that time I have been introduced to a dozen other brilliant Hopkins surgeons who all have done great work in other countries for those in need. With his help, I found someone to translate her medical records from French into English, but most importantly, put Lydia’s caretakers in contact with a doctor who specializes in pediatric cardiac surgery.
Dozens of emails, hours on the phone, and late nights later, I got the final email that informed me that a pediatric cardiac surgeon would travel to Cambodia to evaluate and possibly operate on little Lydia. Together, with a Cambodian cardiac surgeon from the hospital in Siem Reap, he will try to change Lydia’s fate. It’s a sad story from a medical perspective because although she is now in an environment where she is loved and cared for, her fight is not over. She is as strong as a neglected and abused child could be, but unfortunately, if the diagnosis from the poor evaluation conducted at the hospital is true, her condition could only be helped but not repaired by the surgery.
Little Lydia has a chance at life, but not necessarily a normal one. The people who care for her will do their best to surround her with everything she needs, and the love and attention that will keep her little heart pumping.
In July, my good friend and fellow Pre-Med Elizabeth O’Hare and I will be leaving the United States and traveling to Cambodia to meet Lydia, the rest of the children at the shelter, and the Cambodian surgeon who will help oversee her care. We’ll spend one month at the shelter caring for the kids and teaching English. As an undergrad from a small university on the side of a mountain thousands of miles away, I wondered if I was too insignificant to help. With a bit of luck, lots of connections, and good friends, I was able to help little Lydia from the other side of the world.
Very soon I will buy a place ticket to meet Lydia myself. Everyone who has heard her story knows that she is nothing short of a miracle. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that you should choose to love every moment. Joy can be anywhere, in any place, and I feel it is my mission to bring my compassion to a country where I may need to live out of a backpack for a month. And that’s okay with me. I hope that what I was able to do for Lydia will continue to give hope to the volunteers at the Shelter for Love, and that my journey will inspire others too.
Any support in my mission would be greatly appreciated. Please consider donating to my fundraising link (https://www.gofundme.com/cambodiaorphanage), or email me at KMComeau@email.msmary.edu for more info. All donations not covering my travel expenses will be donated to Lydia’s healthcare fund. I also want Lydia’s story to be told, so please share with your family and friends and check my site for updates on Lydia.