Born with arthrogyrposis, a rare birth defect that causes multiple joint contractures, Yen Ly began life in a bamboo and thatch house with her elderly parents and younger brother in the village of Pasia, Salavan Province. Along the Ho Chi Minh trail, just west of the Vietnam border, her village is a mere 2 miles from where over 14,000 gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed in 1966.
Yen is a quick learner, very gregarious, with a somewhat wacky sense of humor. When her teacher first introduced her to WLP, walking was very difficult, but she managed to make the trip across her village and up the hill to school. After the regional rehabilitation center in Pakse determined there was little they could do for her level of disability, WLP helped her travel to Vientiane in 2015 for a fuller examination. A Lao doctor diagnosed her with arthrogryposis, a very severe case that impacted her hands, feet and knees. Her most urgent problem, however, was severe malnutrition. At home she survived on rice and hot peppers, rarely getting protein or fresh vegetables.
A foreign orthopedic surgeon determined that only multiple operations could make her legs function better and facilitate walking. Yen had a wheelchair and a walker, but only intermittently used them. After surgery, she lived on an organic farm near Vientiane gaining strength to enroll in a vocational training program learning handicrafts at the Lao Disabled Women’s Center.
In February 2017, Yen was strong enough to make her first trip back home. WLP staff accompanied her on her first plane flight. Terrified, but excited, she held her breath for take-off, then the vistas of fields and rivers became magical. At landing, fear gripped her and she shouted in Lao: “I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die.”
On the ground, the man next to her exclaimed, “I’m so glad you did not die. You're too pretty to die early.” He asked: What is your name? Where are you going? Jacquelyn Chagnon, WLP’s Lao Program advisor, introduced Yen’s circumstance and WLP’s work. When he had moved on, she revealed to Yen that he was the Prime Minister of Laos, now the President of the Lao PDR. Yen had had no idea who she was talking to.
Having crossed several significant rocky streams and climbed slick hillsides in a four-wheel drive vehicle, Yen’s return was greeted with a surge of villagers. In tears, she struggled toward her parents across the exhausting rough surface. Schoolmates pounded her with questions; old women hugged her. She visited with parents and neighbors, including the parents of three-year-old Ban whose operation in Vientiane on his two club feet had healed well, allowing him to stand, walk and play with his friends.
Yen’s parents are farmers with minimal income, let alone food supply. They lost everything during the U.S. Secret War and never recovered. Their house remains a ramshackle hut, which could easily collapse in a strong storm.
Yen’s mother had given birth to 13 children; only the last 3 survived. She struggled for years with Tuberculosis, had taken TB medicine, but never had a check-up. While TB treatment is free, the cost of transport and food often prohibits people from seeking help. Yen asked WLP to help her parents get check-ups and they spent two days at the district hospital where both were deemed TB free and her father was sent home with vitamins and cough medicine. Yen felt so proud to have helped her parents.
Yen is a prime example of why it is essential to build trust before providing medical support immediately. When people with disabilities are identified, someone in the village at the local level must advocate for the PWD’s needs. Ideally this would be parents, but in Yen’s case it was her teacher who better understood the medical system and could advocate for her while maintaining communication with parents.
After her visit home Yen returned to her vocational training program in Vientiane and graduated from her sewing and handicraft courses. While missing her family and her friends at home, she is now a young woman, in love with a very lovely young man and looking forward to her future.