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Submitted Story: Bouakham is dead

Photo: Angela Keying He

Bouakham is dead.

She was born on 10th October 1960 and died on 29th February 2016:  55 years
old.  She died less than one month after this photograph was taken.

Look at the photo.

You may be able to see that her right arm is wasted.  You cannot see that
her right hand is locked in a fixed position.  That happened due to some set
of circumstances that I have never been able to fathom, in the
early-mid-1980s, whilst she was attending the National Rehabilitation Centre
in Vientiane.  When this photo was taken she was already in later stages of
kidney failure and her limbs were swollen due to fluid retention.  So her
right arm, does not look as it normally did.

You can see that she used crutches (only one in view).  That was because she
did not have legs.  Well, her legs, below the knee, were amputated and she
had prostheses.

Of the four limbs with which she was born, only one remained in full and
proper functioning.

When she was 8 years old, she lived on the Plain of Jars, in Xieng Khouang
province – in the north east of Lao PDR.  Her village was a mobile affair.
It was really just a collection of people with no houses.  That was because
the houses had all been destroyed by bombs and incendiary devices.  The
people were living under banana leaves during the day in order to hide from
the bombers:  they could only move at night to forage for food.  Bouakham’s
father was very badly injured by napalm and was slowly recovering.

One day, there was an explosion nearby and pieces of shrapnel embedded
themselves in Bouakham’s legs.  The villagers leapt to their feet, her
injured father gathered Bouakham up, and they ran.  There was little or no
medical treatment to be had, so the injuries that Bouakham sustained went
largely untreated.

Fifteen years later, Bouakham’s brother, now established as a government
officer, sent for her to come to Vientiane and she received medical
attention.  It was thought that her legs were too badly damaged to be able
to save them and they were amputated, below the knee.

She attended the National Rehabilitation Centre and received prosthetic
limbs.

Then, she was found by World Vision who supported her and trained her to
speak some English and to be able to do dressmaking.  Yes, this lady who had
no legs and only one properly functioning arm, became a seamstress, tailor,
dressmaker.

I first met her in 2002, when she had been appointed to the committee of the
Lao Disabled People’s Association.  She was working as a dressmaker and
training others in that skill.  Every year, she would have a stall at the
That Luang Festival, when she would sell the products that she had made or
that had been made by those who worked with her.  She started printing
T-shirts, too, and selling them to those who were supporting the Hash, etc.
And making sinhs (skirts) for schoolgirls.  And creating her own special
line in soft toys.

At that time, she had a house that she rented, near to That Luang stupa, and
she lived there with her niece.  The government decided that the area would
be beautified, so she was moved on.  For a while, she lived in a place very
like a lock-up garage, near the Thadeua Road.  That did not last long and
then she was in a starter home on T4, the eastern by-pass to Vientiane,
where she had a sewing enterprise and a little shop, with a sugar-cane press
for sweet drinks.

Her ambition was to establish a sewing school, where she would be able to
train other disabled ladies in the craft and help them to become
sustainable.

Her younger brother bought her a house, near Dong Dok University to the
north-east of the city.  It was a two-story, timber-built affair with three
rooms downstairs, three more upstairs (which were inaccessible to Boaukham),
and a lean-to kitchen and bathroom. But, it was built on a bend in the road
on a hillside and every rainy season, the storm water would take a short-cut
through the ground floor.

She wanted to convert most of the ground-floor for the sewing school and an
associated shop.  To do so, she had to rebuild the kitchen and make it less
susceptible to the summer heat, and raise it above the level of the storm
water.  She got a grant from an Australian/Indonesian charity to do some of
this work and she was continually soldiering on to try and finish it, in the
face of many obstacles and ongoing difficulties.

When Fred Branfman died, I was seeking for some way of recognising the
enormous contribution that he had made by uncovering and publicising the war
on the ordinary people of the Plain of Jars, and I realised that Bouakham
was one of those people.  She, and her enterprise, might be a memorial to
him, and many people joined me to help her to complete the work.

Her biggest problem was her declining health:  a year ago, she had a growth
on the side of her neck and she went into hospital to have it removed.  Then
she had renal problems and had to go onto medication that cost $50 per
month.  She scrambled to find the money to pay for the medication and to
complete the reconstruction of her house.

At a time when she had no doors on the house, she received a visit from a
thief who removed some of her property, including her computer.

Finally, as her health continued to decline and she was left without a
carer, who had to leave to tend to her own mother, Bouakham had herself
admitted to the Vietnam-Lao Hospital on Route 13 South.  There, the doctor
found that she was suffering from advanced kidney failure:  her limbs were
swollen with retained fluids, and her body cavity and lungs were filling
with fluids.  She was transferred to the Mitthaphab Hospital where there are
dialysis machines, but it was too late.

Now, Fred has gone and Bouakham, too.

Shall we say that Bouakham, this wonderful lady of great courage, great
determination and great compassion, was a belated case of collateral damage?

In grief,

Michael A B Boddington, MBE (Vientiane, Laos)

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1 Comment

  1. Noor Dythavon says

    How devastating, it is life circumstances such as these that make me want to get some to the physicians that I work with to help me set up mobile health visits to Laos. I am a critical care nurse at the tail end of my critical FNP credential. My kids are adults and my husband would consider it a dream of a life time. I’ve practiced by setting up stroke fairs and healthcare resource booths at any Southeast Asian festive that will allow me a table. Healthcare is something we all need to support and sponsor in all parts of Laos. I am working hard to get myself set up to do so. I am sad that it is not in time for hero’s like Bouakham.

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