By Tuff Witarama

After getting an advanced degree in public health, I have worked as a scientist and researcher in a lab for most of my professional career. But my job really wasn’t gratifying and I kept asking myself why I had studied public health if I wasn’t doing anything for the public. So I took a leap of faith and decided to quit and come volunteer at Warm Heart to gain some new experiences and maybe even utilize some of my skills.

At first I wasn’t planning to come to Thailand to volunteer.  But after extensive research, I ended up choosing Warm Heart because the project description was the best fit for what I was looking for. It was also the most sensible choice since I also speak the language; being able to communicate with the locals would certainly be a big advantage over going someplace where I would have to learn the language before I could work effectively.

I can’t say I knew what I was getting myself into before joining Warm Heart. The only thing I knew was that I would be doing something in public health and expected to do whatever was necessary to help the needy in the area. I couldn’t have imagined all the things that I would experience during my year here and, needless to say, I definitely underestimated what those expectations would turn out to be.  Mind you, arriving in April at the height of hot season, I initially thought I was going to sweat to death before accomplishing anything worthwhile.

As I dove into the work, I learned that Warm Heart had started many public health initiatives that were neither well-defined nor continued through the years. My objective then became clear: I would set up a self-sustaining system that could and would be carried out by both Warm Heart personnel or future volunteers after my departure. Unfortunately that turned out to be easier said than done. Not having previously worked in the developing world, I was my own worst enemy by trying to be too ambitious in creating a database system that just wasn’t practical or feasible. In the end, I whittled things down to a simple Excel sheet.  Being able to fill in this dinky sheet with names represented countless hours and encounters spent with the many people that I met while volunteering at Warm Heart.

To start off my journey, I first had to learn and get to know the area. Meeting and connecting with the residents of the communities of Phrao Valley was a day-to-day task that was both difficult and enjoyable at the same time. Walking in the blazing sun to survey new areas was definitely not easy, but I was also met with another challenge when I actually had to communicate with the locals. Like many countries, there are language variations in different parts of Thailand. Even though I was fluent in Thai, I was dumbfounded when people started speaking to me in the northern dialect. Grammar-wise it’s the same language but 70-80% of the vocabulary is different. In order to work effectively in a new place, you have to adapt and start learning the local ways of living and that includes learning the language. I did reach the point where I could communicate well enough to understand everything. Going into communities on our regular visits and having everyone happy to see us was one of the highlights of my stay at Warm Heart and a feeling that I will never forget.


Some of the elderly and infirm residents that we worked with

The task that took up the most time and energy was as the driver, transporting the sick and elderly to the hospital either in Phrao or Chiang Mai. Who would have known that after all those years spent at school that my specialty skill was being a chauffeur. Actually this was an important job and entailed more than just driving. The individuals that I brought to the hospital also needed a friend and an advocate that would help them communicate with the doctors. Just like in any other country, even first world countries, those who are uneducated have a hard time explaining their conditions and understanding anything that the doctors say.

Because of all the time I spent at Phrao hospital, I really got to know my way around pretty well.  The doctors there weren’t too fond of me because sometimes I asked too many questions. I’m sure they weren’t used to that because most of the patients they deal with just nod ‘yes’ at everything they say and don’t question anything. The doctors really could make more of an effort to simplify what they say so that patients could better understand their situation.  The public health system in Thailand is a long, long way from being what we would consider good.

I had many frustrations with their system but the most frustrating one by far was that there was no way to make an appointment. Going to the hospital is generally an all-day affair with many wasted hours waiting. Because there are virtually no transportation services for patients, I was on call all the time. In the end, there wasn’t really much I could do to change things. People needed to go to the hospitals so I was there to take them.

(Tuff Witarama recently spent almost an entire year at Warm Heart)