“I almost killed a child today,” I thought to myself last Wednesday night. It had started as a normal Wednesday afternoon, and I was doing my “good deed” of volunteering at the orphanage in Hengyang. Since last semester, I have been volunteering on the government side of the center where the conditions are wanting. The mortality rate in the room where we work is still relatively high and many of the babies that come in, don’t make it out alive.
For the older physically able kids in this room, they find ways to sustain their bodies. They steal food from the care-takers, eat random things off the floor, steal bottles of milk meant for the babies, and even pry food out of weaker children’s mouths. For these weak children with handicapped bodies, they often go hungry. Lest this sounds too bleak, let me add that conditions have improved significantly in this room. Now, the foreign workers (at least one foreign worker a day from a non-profit organization) will bring the kids a morning snack of fruit and an afternoon snack of milk.This past week, I went by myself to the orphanage as my team-mate was busy. An Australian couple (auntie and uncle) from the non-profit organization also came that day to say their good-byes to the kids and the care-takers. They brought 2 Chinese cakes. One for the care-takers and one for the kids. Before the cake was even properly cut, a sneaky boy had slipped into the room and reached from behind to put his hand directly into the cake and make off with a hand-full of fruit and icing. In the process, the Australian uncle accidentally sliced his hand with the knife and the cake was disheveled. From the beginning, I realized that bringing cake to hungry children is a stressful ordeal.
Finally, all the cake was cut and we were administering pieces of cake to the weaker kids while the strong ones finished theirs and then tried to steal cake from the rest of us. It was stressful to say the least. I was feeding three weaker boys with a spoon. I tried to divide up the fruit pieces, cake, and frosting evenly alternating between the three boys. It was at that moment that two things happened. 1. The sneaky boy again had success making off with a hand-full of cake from my bowl. 2. One boy that I was feeding had a pained look on his face and was sucking in air through his bottom teeth. “Is he choking?” the Australian auntie asked me. His mouth remained strained and he had the look of fear in his eyes. The Chinese care-taker, seeing the problem, reached for him and with one motion grabbed his feet and turned him upside down giving him several good shakes. Having taken First Aid, I knew there was probably a better way to dislodge food. I asked if I could try. I couldn’t remember what to do for children when giving the Heimlich maneuver, but I remembered clearly how to give the Heimlich to adults. I held his slight frame between my arms and found the place underneath his breastbone. I gave him 3 good pumps. Nothing happened.
“Take him to the doctor on the first floor” said the Australian auntie. I rushed with the Chinese care-taker and the little boy to the first floor. The doctor and nurse turned the boy on his stomach at a steep incline and hit his back with downward strokes. This went on for what seemed like 10 minutes, but was probably more like 2 minutes. The boy was still not breathing normally. Thankfully though, he still had a little sound through his mouth and was getting some air in through his pipe as he had not turned blue.
Finally, the doctor and nurse could see this method was not working. They started up a kind of machine that has a long, thin suction tube. They weaved the tube down the little boy’s throat. His eyes got big like he was about to gag as the tube went down. Finally, the piece of fruit popped up and the boy heaved a big gasp of air. The awful, little round, whole piece of melon sat mockingly on the floor.
“You gave him this big piece of fruit?” the doctor and nurse said to the care-taker with an air of accusation.
“It was me. I wasn’t careful. It was my wrong.” I say quickly and with down-cast eyes. After putting this boy through hell and back, it’s the least I can do to take the blame for my own carelessness.
“The kids can’t eat that big of bites” they tell me. I know. Now, I know. Before leaving the room, I look down at the piece of fruit one more time in utter disgust.
And I can still see it now, this round piece of melon lying hauntingly on the floor of the doctor’s office. Why didn’t this little boy know enough to chew this piece of fruit? It’s fruit; it’s not a Lego. He’s 5 or 6 six years old. His mental abilities are fine; he can even talk in comprehensible words unlike some of the other, more aggressive children. And here’s where I get stuck in questions and accusations stemming from this incident aimed both at myself and at a broken system. What is the quality of life for children who are so used to being hungry that they won’t even take the time to masticate their food if it means it might get pried out of their mouth from undisciplined bullies or they’ll miss the next round of feeding.
In this place, I feel utterly hopeless; I see darkness and difficulty. I don't know if going there one time a week for a couple of hours can really change anything. I want to believe, I want to have hope. I don't want to let the bad experience scar me from ever trying again.