The Joy of a Boy on his Bike
Dressed in a canary yellow football kit with matching yellow crocs, five-year-old Makara beams as he pumps the pedals of his new bicycle and zooms along the sandy footpath that leads to his rural home in the Battambang province of Cambodia. His father, Thlok Sopheap, runs along behind, just in case his son takes a tumble on the uneven ground. But his help isn’t needed – Makara is already a pro.
Buying the bike was no small feat for Sopheap, whose family doesn’t have money for anything beyond essentials. They farm sesame seeds and collect water snails from a nearby lake, but the margins are thin. To try and make ends meet, every year they migrate to do seasonal labor, picking fruits or cutting sugarcane on plantations in Thailand. But when Makara said that what he’d love more than anything in the world was a bicycle, his parents were determined to make it happen. It took months to save enough, but eventually, and with a few sacrifices, the family came up with the cash to buy the bike. Now, watching him speed along the network of paths that crisscross their fields brings them more joy than they thought possible.
Just a few years ago, Makara’s parents fully believed that their son would never walk, let alone ride a bike or kick a ball. When Makara’s mother, Preab Soeub, was pregnant, she was crushed to learn at a prenatal scan that her baby would be born with a deformity.
“I just went outside and cried,” says Soeub. “I cried so much. I thought he’d never be able to do anything.”
Sure enough, when the baby was born, she saw that one of his legs was indeed curled sharply inwards and upwards at the ankle. Even then, nobody could really explain his deformity in a way that made sense to her. Devastated and in shock, she assumed the worst.
“I didn’t even want to look at it,” she says. “I kept asking myself why – why must my only son be born like this? I thought he’d be like that for life.”
On the way back home from the hospital, she couldn’t help but stare with a mix of envy and sadness at the healthy legs of the other children she passed on the road. Already, her mind was racing. She felt intense sympathy for Makara, but she also fretted about how the family would cope. Life was hard enough already. How would she be able farm the fields and look after a disabled son? And how could she and Sopheap ever expect to continue their seasonal trips to Thailand, a vital part of the family’s income?
For a week these thoughts consumed her. And it didn’t make her feel better when she heard neighbors making snide remarks behind her back.
“They were saying we must have been sinners in a past life, and that’s why our son was born like this,” says Soeub.
Then, when Makara was about a week old, a visitor appeared at their door. The woman, who lived nearby, heard that Soeub had given birth to a little boy with one leg longer than the other, but she suspected there might be more to it. A few weeks earlier, she had been in the hospital with her daughter who suffered a minor accident. While there she saw other babies whose legs seemed to fit the same description–only those babies were being treated.
As soon as the woman saw Makara’s legs for herself, she knew she was right. She explained to a teary Soeub that all hope was not lost. In the hospital, she’d seen many newborns just like him, but their parents were confidently seeking treatment.
Two days later, Soeub and Sopheap filled their ageing scooter with fuel they couldn’t afford, gathered Makara, squeezed onto the back, and set off for the hospital. It was a leap of faith. Only after visiting the clinic did they learn that Makara’s condition had a name: clubfoot, and it also had a treatment. Doctors explained that treatment was a simple process that did not require major surgery. On hearing this, Sopheap and Soeub felt a huge surge of relief.
The staff of the hospital’s clubfoot clinic, run by Miracle Feet’s Cambodian partner, Next Steps, began treating Makara using the Ponseti method. They used plaster casts to gradually shift the foot into a straighter position. Within two weeks, Makara’s parents could see that it was working. A few weeks later, his left leg looked only a little different from his right, and after seven weeks, the doctors told her no further casting would be needed.
The next step was for Makara to wear a foot abduction brace, initially for 23 hours of the day. At first, he found this uncomfortable.
“He cried for three days” remembers Soeub. “It was so hard for us. We felt so sorry for him. At times we even wanted to give up.”
But they stuck with it, and within a week Makara barely seemed to notice the brace at all. Five years later, he enjoys wearing his brace, which comes with neat leather shoes and bright purple laces. These days he needs only wear it at night, but sometimes he asks his mum to put it on during the day just for fun. He’s especially excited every time the clinic replaces his worn-out shoes with shiny new ones.
Life still isn’t easy for the family, but Makara’s feet are one thing they don’t have to worry about. He’s doing great, his mother says. Most of the time he entertains himself running around the fields, playing football and, of course, riding his precious bicycle. Next year, he’ll be off to school. She hopes one day he might become a teacher.
“Our lives would have been so different if he hadn’t been treated,” says Soeub. “Everything would be hopeless. But now we have hope.”