It was about a month after we returned from Viengkham that Mike received his first phone call about the case of Lahela, little orphan girl. You can read the start of this story in the post titled: What price a child’s life?
After eight days in the hospital in Vientiane, no one seemed to be all that much closer to figuring out for sure what might be wrong with eleven-year-old Lahela. All the tests had come back negative, but the doctors had now circled back around to thinking that she might have Japanese encephalitis, after all.
All that the medication she’d been given in Luang Prabang before being flown south may have clouded the test results. Either that, they said, or she had a chronic neurological condition and would continue to suffer from acute episodes of paralysis in the future.
The good news was that Lahela no longer appeared to be in imminent danger. She was eating again, although she still needed help even to sit up in bed.
Mindful of the fact that the medical emergency fund was set up to assist families with emergencies, not chronic medical conditions, Mike and the child sponsorship staff judged that Lahela needed to be transported back to her village so that she could continue to recover there.
Mike instructed the staff in Vientiane to make sure that Lahela knew she would be leaving the hospital in a couple of days and to encourage her fourteen year old sister (who the organization had arranged to accompany Lahela to Vientiane) to continue to learn the rehabilitation exercises so that she could help her sister complete them back in the village. The staff were to put together instructions for rehabilitation in Khmu, pay the hospital bills, organize bus tickets and paperwork, and (as Lahela could not yet walk) accompany Lahela and her sister on the ten-hour bus trip back to Luang Prabang.
With the exception of the bus breaking down in the middle of the night during their long journey home, all of this went fairly smoothly and Lahela and her sister were returned to the care of their elderly grandmother in their village. National staff up here were tasked with checking in on them regularly and doing what they could to help Lahela in her rehabilitation.
Two weeks ago, a month after Lahela arrived home, Mike had to visit a village nearby to conduct a construction inspection for a half-completed school. While he was in the area, he decided he would drop in and see Lahela.
“It was depressing,” Mike told me later, after he’d gotten home tired and dirty from his three-day field trip. “The child sponsorship guy was there, helping her, and he says she’s getting better. But she’s very thin, and still can’t move her right arm or leg much without help. It’s a tough situation.”
“What’s happened with the paperwork for this case?” I asked, sitting on the bed while Mike unpacked.
“All the bills have been paid for the organization,” Mike said, “Everything is taken care of except for one hundred thousand kip ($12) they owe as family contribution and three hundred thousand ($36) they borrowed from the village development bank when she first got sick.”
“How are they planning on paying that back?” I asked.
“Iokina says they’ll sell rice from this harvest,” Mike said. “But that’ll leave them short during the hungry months.”
“Can we pay it using Matt’s and Hilary’s money?” I asked.
“I’ve already asked the national staff to look into that possibility,” Mike said. “They’re a bit wary. They say that if word gets around that the organization paid back someone’s loan from the village development bank, then no one else will pay back their loans.”
“But the money’s not coming from the organization,” I said.
“We know that,” Mike said. “It won’t look that way to the people in the village. Let’s see what the staff suggest.”
When Mike came home a week later he was grinning and shaking his head.
“OK,” he said, as we were walking into town for dinner. “Here’s the plan the staff have made. They’re going to take the money for the village development loan from me in cash and give it to a local government official they trust, and the government official is going to give it to the family, and then the family can give it to the village development bank. That way no one will know it came from us.”
“OK,” I said, a bit dubious. “That’s fine. I don’t know how they’re planning on explaining why the government had decided to help out, but as long as the loan gets repaid, that’s fine.”
“I printed out a picture of Hilary and Matt from Facebook and gave it to the team so that if the plan unravels and people start asking questions they can show them who gave the money and reiterate that it wasn’t the organization.”
I laughed. “Nice touch. So, score one for the Matt and Hilary fund?”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Score one for the Matt and Hilary fund. Now Lahela’s family won’t have to sell any rice this season. So if their harvest is good this year, they’ll have enough rice to make it through three or four of the hungry months instead of being hungry for all six.”
“That’s good,” I said uncertainly.
“Yeah,” Mike said, and sighed.
We walked along the Khan River in silence. I presume Mike was contemplating the difference between our lives and Lahela’s. I sure was.
“OK,” I said after we’d been quiet for a while, when we were only a minute or two from the main road lined with market stalls, and tourists, and restaurants.
“Where you want to eat dinner tonight?”
- When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
- When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
- When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
- When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated