In August 2011, at Mae Sot General Hospital, a mother found herself facing a choice no parent should have to make.
She had given birth three days earlier and walked seven hours from her home in eastern Burma to seek medical treatment for her sick newborn daughter, Naut Naut, leaving her husband and other infant daughter at home. She went first to a clinic in Burma, then across the border to Tha Song Yang Hospital in Thailand, only to be told at both places that Naut Naut was too sick to be treated there and would need to be transferred to a larger hospital with better equipment. Finally, Naut Naut’s mother brought her daughter to Mae Sot General Hospital, where she learned that Naut Naut would need surgery and long-term care to have any chance of living. She was alone, with no money, still bleeding from giving birth days earlier, and in an unfamiliar country, unable to speak the language and at risk of being arrested as an undocumented immigrant. She could not stay there, but if she returned home with Naut Naut, she knew her daughter would likely die.
On the Thai-Burma border, it is not uncommon for a child born with a severe illness or disability to be abandoned at a hospital. The parents, unable to care for a child with special needs, often feel their best option is to leave the baby in the hope that the hospital staff will ensure the child receives the necessary care.
When Naut Naut was first brought to Tha Song Yang Hospital, her health was deteriorating rapidly and she was diagnosed with pneumonia and respiratory failure. Her pneumonia was cured at Mae Sot General Hospital, but after being returned to Tha Song Yang she was diagnosed with liver failure. Doctors were able to stabilize her condition, but the hospital was not equipped to give her the surgery she needed. With no parents to claim her, the doctors at Tha Song Yang contacted Burma Children Medical Fund (BCMF), an organization that provides access to treatment for children with serious health conditions.
BCMF agreed to take on Naut Naut’s case and arranged for her to be transported 500kms to Maharaj Nakorn Hospital in Chiang Mai. For the following year, Naut Naut was cared for by former BCMF patients in Chiang Mai until she received surgery. The operation was successful and Naut Naut made a full recovery, but she still had no home to return to and no one to take care of her. Knowing this, BCMF contacted Life Impact International, an organization dedicated to supporting children in need in Thailand and Burma. With their support, Naut Naut has since grown up to be a healthy young girl. Now four years old, she will soon begin school and has a bright future ahead of her.
During the four years since Naut Naut was first referred to BCMF, the organization’s director Kanchana Thornton never forgot Naut Naut’s story, and continued to harbor hope of reuniting her with her family. With almost no information that could be used to identify her parents, this was a seemingly impossible task until late 2014, when BCMF formed a partnership with a health clinic in eastern Karen State. The clinic’s catchment area includes the region where Naut Naut’s parents were believed to have come from and Ms. Thornton told the story of the child’s abandonment to the head medic. He agreed to search for the missing parents. Incredibly, just a few weeks later, the medic contacted Ms Thornton saying he had located the parents, and after an initial meeting with BCMF staff to confirm their identity, a reunion was arranged.
On a hot, humid day in July, a van carrying Naut Naut, her caregiver, a journalist, and six BCMF employees left Mae Sot heading north to cross the Moei River into Burma. A former militia camp on the western bank of the river had been chosen as the site for the meeting with Naut Naut’s family. By the time the group arrived, the family was already there waiting. They had walked five hours through the jungle to reach the camp, following a road that is little more than a rough path even in good conditions and becomes impassable during heavy rains.
When Naut Naut’s parents first saw her, they knelt to embrace her and introduced themselves in whispers while Naut Naut’s caregiver looked on. The parents now have two other daughters, and the three children were soon playing together, sharing toys and coloring with crayons. Naut Naut is too young to truly understand the significance of what was happening, but her parents expressed gratitude and joy at having been reunited with their daughter.
“We never thought we would see her again,” said Naut Naut’s mother, “and we are so grateful that she has come back to us.” Naut Naut’s mother explained that she returned to the first clinic she brought Naut Naut to weeks after leaving her at the hospital, but was told only that her daughter was still very sick and was scheduled to have surgery. After that, she says, she could not find any more information and gave up hope of ever finding Naut Naut.
When it came time to say goodbye, the feeling was bittersweet. Naut Naut had finally found her family, but she would not be staying with them.
“She cannot have a good life living in the jungle,” says her father, “She is better off being taken care of by someone else where she can have a good life and go to school.”
For now, Naut Naut will stay with her caregivers and begin her education, but with the assistance of Life Impact and BCMF, she will remain in contact with her family and can look forward to spending more days with them in the future.
The story of Naut Naut’s recovery and reunion with her family is one of incredible good fortune, but it also serves as a disturbing example of the state of healthcare in Burma. No national government in the world invests less in its health system than Burma’s current regime, and as a result, Burma lags far behind other countries in Southeast Asia in terms of healthcare quality.
Mothers and children are especially at risk and Burma’s infant mortality rate is among the worst in Asia: 40 out of every 1,000 children born in Burma will die before their first birthday, compared to just 11 in neighbouring Thailand. The situation is even direr for ethnic populations living in eastern Burma, who have even fewer resources available to them and have been plagued by persecution and armed conflict for decades.
It is these conditions that led Naut Naut’s mother to walk hours through the jungle and cross the border illegally into Thailand and then to decide that the best chance to save her newborn daughter’s life was to leave her in the care of the doctors and nurses at a Thai hospital. Naut Naut was fortunate to receive the care she needed and to find her way back to her family, but for every story like hers there are many more children who are abandoned and either do not survive or spend their childhood growing up in an orphanage.
Until there is significant investment and reform in Burma’s healthcare system, people like Naut Naut and her family will continue to lack access to the quality support and treatment they need.
*Connor Brown works at BCMF as an intern and is completing a Master in Public Health degree at Columbia University.