Monday, 20 July 2009

A heart-to-heart chance encounter

Kris Nelson, left, and her granddaughter Emily Brown met Ratha Pang and her son, Soksamnang "Lucky" Vy, both of Cambodia, at a rest stop. Both children have had surgeries to repair holes in their hearts. After that chance encounter, Nelson went on a humanitarian tour of Cambodia. (Photo Contributed)

Press-Telegram Long beach
By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/19/2009

Sometimes it takes only a chance encounter to alter a life path. Sometimes it's just an alteration of your regular routine. Call it fate or destiny or karma or just chance.

Kris Nelson, 46, doesn't yet know where her chance encounter will lead, but she feels fundamentally changed and determined to do something with the insight she has gained.

Having just returned from a trip to Cambodia she never would have conceived of before, Nelson is back at her job as an operations manager in Orange County. She's filled with stories about the trip, the sights, sounds and the other touristy news. But because her vacation was a "humanitarian tour," it gave her profound feelings of not only appreciation for life in the United States, but duty to help others.

It all started when Nelson was driving her infant granddaughter, Emily Brown, to Las Vegas. Emily was fussing in the car seat, so Nelson decided to pull over to a rest stop.

"I had never stopped at a rest stop — ever," Nelson says.

While Emily toddled around in a grassy area, an Asian woman approached with her infant son. The woman pointed to a scar on Emily's chest that peeked above the neckline, then showed a similar scar on her son's chest.

The woman was Ratha Pang, a Cambodian brought to the United States by a Long Beach nonprofit that arranged for her boy, Soksamnang "Lucky" Vy, to have surgery.

Emily was born with two holes in her heart, or a ventricular septal

defect. It is an easily corrected defect, although it does require open heart surgery.
For Emily, the surgery was routine. For Soksamnang, who was born with a dime-sized hole in his heart, the chance for life-altering surgery was a miracle. Soksamnang lives in a hut in a village outside Phnom Penh and had no access to that level of health care.

But his cousin is David Kem, who volunteers with the Hearts Without Boundaries nonprofit, and that opened the door to the boy having the surgery.

After meeting Pang and Soksamnang, Nelson says she was surrounded by an entourage of Cambodians who were accompanying the boy home from his surgery.

"I thought, `This is really weird,"' Nelson recalls.

Nelson was forming instant friendships, from pantomiming about the scar, Emily's "boo-boo art" as the family calls it.

"David said it was destiny that we met," Nelson says.

After the encounter, Nelson and Kem stayed in contact. She had planned a trip to Bhutan and when it fell through, Kem suggested a humanitarian tour to Cambodia, where she could not only see the famed Angkor Wat temple complex and other sites, but visit Soksamnang, another girl, Davik Teng, who received surgery thanks to Hearts Without Boundaries, and deliver rice and necessities to villages in the countryside.

The trip to parts of Cambodia that most foreigners never see was touching for Nelson.

She said she was amazed by the spirit of the people.

"They are the most genuinely happy people," Nelson says. "They have a happiness in their soul."

Nelson also saw how she could make a difference. Although she said she has often thought about helping others, the enormity of need would often overwhelm her.

Now, with Soksamnang and Davik, Nelson says she sees a way to help - and it's meaningful and it's personal.

Nelson says she realizes, "If you can help one person, no matter where they are, it can make a difference."

Although she is still sorting through the flood of memories and emotions, Nelson says she is committed to help "Lucky" and Davik.

"My help for me is peanuts," Nelson says. "But to know $30 is a month's pay over there, it can make a big difference."

And it sprung from the most random of meetings., 562-499-1291


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