I'm the glad the clamor for the Bald Barbie has died down. Last month people were petitioning Mattel to make a bald Barbie doll so that kids on chemo or who had alopecia could have a doll they could relate. I'm not even going to go into all that because at the time I couldn't stop thinking about an experience I had in October at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala interviewing kids with cancer and their parents.
Her belly was swollen and hard and you would swear she was nine months pregnant—except that she was three years old and sitting on her father’s lap. Veroneeka had a Wilms’ tumor the size of a football.
Veroneeka’s father explained to me that he sold his whole crop just to get to Kampala. He was thin as a bamboo pole. He handed me the prescription for Veroneeka’s chemo. It was a long list. I recognized a chemo that I myself had had: Cytoxan. I didn’t envy her.
It turns out I didn’t need to envy her because her father couldn’t afford it. The Ugandan Cancer Institute, as often happens was out of medicines. If that’s the case, then they write you a prescription for chemo and then you go to the pharmacy to buy it. The pharmacy might not have it. If they do, you return to the hospital and they give it to you there.
Chemo in Uganda is a bargain: six-hundred bucks cures most kids with lymphoma. I interviewed parent after parent and the story was the same: they spent everything to get diagnosed and get to Kampala. So there was no money left for chemo.
I wanted to reach into my pocket and say, “Here. Six-hundred bucks. Take it.” But I didn’t have six hundred dollars in my pocket.
What I did have was a backpack full of food bars and little stuffed animals. So when the interview was over, I gave Veroneeka a stuffed dog with ridiculously enormous eyes. She simply sat there silently turning it over and over.
Then I asked her father, “Well, if you have no money, what do you eat?”
He answered, “When Veroneeka does not finish her meal, I eat what she has left.”
I stood up and reached into my pack. “Please take these.” I stuffed food bars into every pocket of his worn shirt. And when he stood up to leave I gave him some more which he put in the pockets of his pants.
He took Veroneeka’s hand and I watched her waddle away. Six hundred dollars to cure her. I considered the cost of my equipment.
My video camera would cure two children. My microphone or twelve pairs of my headphones: one child. I’ve been doing these calculations since I got back. So when I read about the push for the bald Barbie, I did the math in my head: at twenty bucks a pop, thirty Barbie dolls would buy chemo for one child.
And like Veroneeka, I simply sat there silently turning it over and over.