Love Prevails: A World Clubfoot Day Story from Cambodia
When Svay Neoung, now 69-years-old, gave birth to a daughter with clubfoot, it came as a severe shock. It was 1991, and especially in rural Cambodia, there was very little awareness of clubfoot. Svay gave birth at home, and the midwife who helped with the delivery had no more idea of how to treat the baby’s feet than she did.
“Nobody knew what to do about it,” Svay says sitting in the shade of her family’s farmhouse in Prey Veng province, watching chickens peck at seeds in the sand. “At that time, doctors were scarce.”
Svay’s husband fashioned a rudimentary foot abduction brace out of bamboo for their daughter, Sarom, but she cried so much that the couple removed it after only a few days. That’s when they resigned themselves to the fact that she would have her deformity for life.
Now 32, Sarom walks with a severe limp, her left foot twisted sharply in at the ankle. She has learned to live with her condition, but it hasn’t been easy. Growing up, she was taunted by her classmates at school. Travelling has always been extremely difficult. And, whenever the rest of her family goes out to work in their fields, she waits behind at home unable to walk the uneven terrain of the rice paddies.
So when, in 2020, six months pregnant, she found out during a pre-natal scan that her own son would also be born with clubfoot, her initial reaction was despair.
“I was devastated,” she admits.
“As a mother, it was a feeling I can’t describe…I knew if I couldn’t find him treatment, he’d never be able to walk.”
Worse, the scans showed that, unlike her own case, her baby’s clubfoot affected both of his feet. It was Sarom’s husband who reassured her that everything would be alright. He promised her that together they’d find their son, Phat, the treatment he needed. Over the next few months, he remained Sarom’s rock as they searched for care. His unconditional support was something Sarom never dreamed she would experience.
Love Finds A Way
Growing up all too aware of the stigma that surrounded her condition, Sarom had assumed she would never find love. Then an extraordinary series of events took place that changed her life forever.
One day in her late teens, she received a phone call from a stranger in another province. He had been trying to phone someone else but dialed the wrong number by mistake. For some reason she can’t quite explain, she didn’t hang up the phone. And neither did he. They started chatting. A second call followed a few days later, and then a third. They connected in a way neither could explain, and the connection kept growing. They exchanged all kinds of stories and information about themselves, but one thing Sarom kept secret: her clubfoot. Fast forward a few years and hundreds of phone calls later, Sarom finally summoned the courage to tell him.
“I have a disability,” she explained one evening on the phone. “I know you won’t want to love me once you’ve seen me.” She expected him to end the relationship, but he didn’t.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of disability you have,” he replied. “I love you.”
Five years after their first accidental contact, the couple met face-to-face for the first time and were married soon after.
Love is Powerful
In the weeks after the birth of their son, the family sought treatment at a local clinic. Thankfully, clubfoot treatment had expanded hugely in Cambodia since the days when Sarom’s parents constructed her bamboo brace. But the process got off to a rocky start when the doctors told them they were unable to treat such a severe case. They referred the couple to the National Pediatric Hospital in the capital, Phnom Penh, where MiracleFeet’s partner organization, NextSteps, was offering weekly clubfoot clinics.
From then on, things began to improve. The doctors immediately began treating Phat with the Ponseti method, using plaster casts to straighten his feet. Within weeks they could see progress, and by the time the doctors performed tenotomies, Sarom began to believe that her son might be able to live a normal life after all.
“I was so relieved,” she says. “I never thought his feet could be completely straight.”
Now approaching his third birthday, Phat is a lively, active toddler who his mother loving describes as “a fireball.”
“He’s very active and very outgoing,” she says. “He loves to play. He loves to explore new things, and he’s always getting up to mischief! He can do exactly the same things as any other kid.”
For a child of his age, the family’s farmyard with its stilt houses, bamboo thickets, and wandering animals is a playground of endless possibilities. While his mother talks, Phat entertains himself, kicking around a football, playing with his much-loved set of toy cars, and clambering on top of a haystack. At night, Sarom makes sure he wears a MiracleFeet brace to prevent relapse. And she’s starting to think optimistically about his future.
“I just want him to get a good education,” said Sarom, who wasn’t able to finish school herself. “Then I’m confident he’ll have a good life.”
Reflecting on their treatment journey, she admits it wasn’t always easy. Aside from the emotional challenges associated with addressing her son’s birth defect, the weekly trips to the clinic in Phnom Penh were a significant burden on the family’s finances. And there was the fear that treatment wouldn’t work, and the worry that Phat would have to live with his condition for life.
“It was so important that I had my husband when we were going through it all,” shares Sarom, leafing through a photo album from the couple’s wedding day. “I couldn’t have done this without him. I believe that fate brought us together.”