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Thai Doctor Creating Multi-Faceted Approach to Sustainable Development

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By Kalinga Seneviratne

CHANTABURI, Thailand (IDN) – A passionate, socially conscious doctor in this rural farming community in the north-east of Thailand is working with a school for marginalised children, supported by a foundation set up by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the second daughter of late King Bhumibol who died in October 2016.

The school aims at empowering the students to break into the medical field through an unconventional career path that is providing a multi-faceted approach to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (P41) INDONESIAN | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | KOREAN TEXT VERSION PDF | PORTUGUESE | TAGALOG | THAI

After a demonstration at the school by his students of a unique Thai massage therapy he has developed to treat what is called ‘office syndrome’ (problems of the neck and shoulder due to long exposure to working in front of a computer screen), Dr Poonchai Chitanuntavitaya, Chief Medical Officer of Social Health Enterprise told IDN: “I have here six Hmong (hill tribe) students and their families are very happy. If they stay there (in the hills) they will be just workers in the corn field but here they can gain knowledge, gain self-esteem and they could one day become health professionals.”

“Once I get training, I get more opportunities to get a job,” one of his students 17-year-old Natetaya Janelinda told IDN. “Along the way I can help others who are sick,” adding that one day she would like to become a doctor.

Professor Kamolrat Intaratat, consultant to the Smart Schools programme and Director of the Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM), who was listening to the interview, said: “I’m surprised she said she wants to be a doctor. Normally marginalised kids don’t dare say that. This programme has given her self-confidence.”

Merging Thai massage wisdom with modern knowledge

Explaining his unique version of Thai massage, Dr Poonchai says that it is about merging the ancient Thai wisdom of massage with modern medical knowledge, especially that which is related to cardiology, given that he is a trained heart specialist.

“I have treated many heart patients and I know work tension leads them to hyper-tension, high cholesterol, no exercise and ultimately heart attacks,” he argues, but “more and more I realise it’s not the right process to treat a patient, the best is prevention.”

For this reason, he studied the physiology of the body and found that it is the muscles that makes people stressed and create the adenine rush of the body to fatigue. “All that can be reversed by stretching, and pinpointing (massage) on some pain points in your body, then the brain will be reversed to order,” he says.

“It’s like, if you are a well trained meditator, you can make the whole body be relaxed during meditations … but not many people can do that. So I have devised this therapy to mimic the effect of that, to release your tense muscle to relax. We call it the human maintenance service.”

Giving disadvantaged children a new chance

In training his youthful practitioners, he has to convey this medical knowledge gradually to his pupils. But, more importantly he also needs strong, fit youngsters to perform this practice. “I need about a month to build up their core muscles. They do various types of exercises. I wake them at 5 am because they are in boarding school, I can have exercise for 1 hour in the morning and in the evening we start training at 5 and finish at 8,” explains Dr Poonchai.

People come to the school on Saturdays and Sundays to act as models for the students to practise the skill they are learning. Sometimes they also go to the local market to provide the service. Recently, at a nine-day Red Cross festival in town, he provided 20 of his students to offer the massage.

Rajaprajanugroh 48, the school where these pupils study, has 548 students and is a 100 percent boarding school because the children – who study from primary 1 to senior high school level – come from disadvantaged backgrounds, many have no parents, some have been drug-addicted or addicted to electronic games, some even being in child prostitution and 80 percent of them come from homeless families.

Princess Sirindhorn’s foundation has created and funds 85 of similar schools across Thailand to educate marginalised children in using modern ICTs in order to create sustainable income generation futures for themselves.

Two-track education

Kamolrat explains that the foundation’s policy has opened up the educational system for marginalised children to travel on two tracks. “The first is vocational training because many, once they finish senior high school, don’t get the chance to go to university because they go to do a job. The Princess wants them to learn ICT skills for becoming smart entrepreneurs … the second is for some to proceed on to a university education.”

According to Kamolrat, “the first step of ICT training is simple e-commerce, knowing that they can use ICT for taking the product to market … from packaging to PR to advertising. Do e-marketing themselves. Check stock, update catalogue, as well as do e-banking. How to transfer money using internet”.

Dr Poonchai’s programme is a new innovation for the idea of the Smart School – a technology-based teaching learning institution to prepare children for the Information Age – notes Kamolrat.

“Thais are good in massage, it comes from our ancestors … this doctor is trying to integrate medical knowledge into indigenous knowledge, train youth in this kind of massage. It is to be academically and professionally trained … when they gain experience from a young age they can become professional massager, and the sustainability of this is in no doubt,” she argues.

Adding a new dimension to the Smart School concept

The school’s director, Dr Supaporn Papakdee, agrees that this massage training has added a new dimension to the Smart School programme here. “We were lucky to get the services of a medical doctor who saw the potential of our students,” she told IDN. “They get training with medical backup, they can get income immediately for themselves and their family. Hopeless kids have become income earners . .. their families are proud.”

“I normally did not have self-confidence (but) now by helping others I have,” said another 17-year-old trainee Thidarat Singthong. “I would like to be a nurse in the navy,” she added.

Dr Poonchai says that what he is introducing to his students is a mobile model of income generation where they can go to the people by, for example, setting up shop at a city rail station or at local airports where the treatment could be given in 10 minutes. In an eight-hour shift they could treat up to 40 people in a day, which would generate a substantial income.

“Office syndrome is a global problem and I hope one day we can provide professional therapists to the UN Development Programme (UNDP),” he said with a determined smile.

Describing himself as a “poor doctor”, Dr Poonchai says that he is not doing this to become rich but he would like to use future income generated by his project to fix the ecological disaster facing Thailand, in the very communities these young people come from.

“I will bring a member of a family of corn farmers who burn the land to farm, to work with me (as massage therapist) and when they have the money they will stop burning the forest and the new forest will have higher value and be less toxic,” the doctor argues, perhaps introducing a new multi-faceted approach to sustainable development. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 January 2018]

* IDN-INPS would like to acknowledge the assistance of CCDKM and Professor Kamolrat Intaratat for facilitating the visit to the Smart School project.

Photo: Dr Poonchai Chitanuntavitaya, Chief Medical Officer of Social Health Enterprise, supervising his trainees while giving massages to visitors to the school for marginalised children, supported by a foundation set up by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, to empower the students to break into the medical field through an unconventional career path that is providing a multi-faceted approach to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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