A New Foot for Chrissy

Do you remember all your favourite outdoor games from childhood? Playing football on the street, or hide-and-seek in the park, or hopscotch at the playground… whether they were structured games or just running around the neighbourhood with your friends, they were an essential part of being a child.

But for one of Little Hearts’ residents, eight-year-old Chrissy, these games weren’t possible. At best, she could hobble along behind her siblings and watch from a distance. When she was two years old, long before being adopted by Little Hearts, she accidentally stepped onto burning coals and severely injured her right foot. She did not receive proper treatment for her burns, so for years she suffered from flexion contracture of all five toes – a condition by which a joint is contorted and cannot be straightened due to damage to muscles, tendons, ligaments or skin.

When she arrived at Little Hearts aged four together with her brother Jeff, Chrissy had no recollection of the accident, but she limped badly. Tony immediately took her to the hospital to have her foot checked. It became clear immediately that the injury was serious. As Chrissy grew, so did her limbs, and her deformity worsened. Tony consulted several surgeons in Phnom Penh and realised that there was insufficient skill and expertise in reconstructive surgery in Cambodia to warrant an operation.

While the physical condition itself was debilitating, the malformation was also having a profound impact on Chrissy’s emotional and social development, limiting her ability to play, interact with others, and develop a positive self-image. (Children with deformities often experience feelings of shame and embarrassment, which stunt their emotional development.) If you’ve watched Chrissy’s video interview, then you’ll know that her most ardent wish has always been to have a whole, healthy foot again so she could run and play with her friends. Little did she know, when she recorded the video, that her wish would soon come true.

A few months ago, Tony was in Bangkok and visited several hospitals to look for a long-term solution for Chrissy’s predicament, leaving her x-rays with several specialists. Not long after returning to Phnom Penh, he was contacted by Dr Aekachai Jaroenarpornwatana, an orthopaedic surgeon at Samitivej Hospital, one of Bangkok’s leading medical facilities. Having examined Chrissy’s x-rays, MRI scans, videos and medical history, he was ready to conduct the surgery and certain that it would succeed in allowing Chrissy to walk normally again. Of all the doctors Tony had consulted in Bangkok and Cambodia, he was also the one who had shown the keenest interest not only in Chrissy’s medical condition, but also in her emotional well-being and in the work we do at Little Hearts to care for the poorest of children.

The next step was to find one or more sponsors to fund the operation. The cost was high; besides the surgery itself, there was air travel to and from Bangkok for both Chrissy and Tony, and accommodation for 10 days, as Dr Aekachai wanted Chrissy to remain in Bangkok after the surgery to receive post-operative care at Samitivej. Tony was worried that fundraising would take a long time, and that Chrissy’s condition would worsen in the interim. In fact, soon after he had contacted some of Little Hearts’ regular sponsors and donors, one stepped forward and volunteered to pay for Chrissy’s operation. Marc Diver is an entrepreneur from Luxembourg who owns and directs Campus Contern, a group of companies active in the real estate sector. Several years ago he learned about Little Hearts from Aunt Patricia (Tony’s sister), and ever since then he has been a donor, contributing regularly to Little Hearts’ general budget. But in Chrissy’s situation he saw a unique opportunity to do even more – to directly intervene in the life of a disadvantaged child and change her life forever. It was a heart-warming prospect, and he seized upon it without hesitation, agreeing to underwrite all costs related to the surgery. Thank you, Marc, for your kindness and selfless dedication. Chrissy and the entire Little Hearts family will remember you always.

With the right orthopaedic specialist identified and the funds secured, it was finally time to go – Tony and Chrissy left for Bangkok on October 15th. It was Chrissy’s first time travelling in an airplane, so she was both anxious and excited, and indeed she found the take-off quite scary. The next morning at 8 am they were at Samitivej Hospital for registration and a battery of tests that lasted all day. The surgery itself took place at 10 pm that night.

Chrissy remained in hospital for three days. Tony, who came and went for the first day but eventually decided to sleep on a couch in Chrissy’s room to make sure she was OK, was impressed with the friendliness of the nursing staff, who, in turn, were quite taken with Chrissy’s ever-cheerful attitude.

After discharge, Tony and Chrissy stayed in a hotel near the hospital to attend repeated post-operative check-ups. When Dr Aekachai first removed Chrissy’s bandages and she saw her new foot for the first time, Tony got goose bumps all over. As for Chrissy, the expression on her face was nearly indescribable – a heady mixture of elation, relief, curiosity and anxiety (especially at the sight of so much clotted blood). This was the moment she had been waiting for ever since she stepped through the front gate of Little Hearts – the chance to lead an active, healthy life like other children, and to feel whole again.

What were Chrissy’s impressions of Thailand? ‘It’s such a nice place,’ she quips. ‘The streets are so clean and the people are really nice. And the food is yummy!’ But is there anything you did not like about being in Thailand, Chrissy? ‘Yeah, I didn’t like all the extra English worksheets I had to do to make up for missing my English classes.’ Then she adds, ‘And I felt so yucky because I couldn’t shower properly for 10 days!’

During her recovery, which may last up to two months, Chrissy must walk on crutches. She will then have to return to Bangkok so that the three metal pins that are keeping her toes in place can be removed. By then, her foot should have healed fully, and she should be able to walk normally. ‘I’m so grateful that I have new toes,’ she says. ‘Soon I’ll be able to wear any shoes I want, and I won’t be embarrassed to show my feet to anyone.’

A heartfelt thank you again to Marc for making Chrissy’s dream come true, and to Dr Aekachai and his surgical team for a job well done and their interest in Chrissy’s special case.

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