By Rachel Harmon

When I arrived at Warm Heart at the end of May, the rainy season was just beginning after the worst drought in a decade.  น้ำขึ้นให้รีบตัก “When the water rises, hurry to collect some.” This is an ancient Thai proverb whose origin I understood as I saw the local residents hurrying to gather water for their families, farms and businesses when the rain finally started filling up the rivers and water basins.  

I also took this proverb to heart as the motto for my time in the “Land of Smiles”. I decided that I would undergo an immersive cultural experience, making lots of new friends, enjoying tours and excursions, learning about everything that presented itself to me and offering my unique set of skills and insights to an organization that works with the local community to improve lives.

I have been exposed to travel all my life.  My missionary parents brought me with them to remote places in the world and taught me the meaning of generosity and the importance of sincere love for people of different cultures. I am a senior nursing major at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee. I have been trained to perform first aid, respond to seizures, assess patients, and how to treat each person I encounter with respect and kindness.

My previous volunteer/job positions have all proved useful here at Warm Heart. I have  worked with community development carrying out missionary work in a rural village in West Africa; at a child advocacy center, a special needs summer camp and a poverty relief center.  I decided to volunteer at Warm Heart because I wanted to learn more about international NGOs and rural public health while, at the same time, being able to practice the skills I am acquiring at college in a real-life setting. Eventually, I hope to move to a rural part of the world as a missionary nurse and initiate health projects there, perhaps even opening a new non-profit clinic or hospital.

My project work at Warm Heart has encompassed all the areas that I expect to work on in my career. I have been involved with Project Access, Warm Heart’s public health program. I have also worked on medical evaluations and educational resources for the Children’s Home which has a number of children who have special needs and/or have been abused.

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Project Access visit with fellow volunteer Ashley (right)

When I first arrived, I was surprised by how relaxed everything was. I soon learned that Thai culture dictated much of the way things are run here. In fact, the only thing that’s consistently on time is meal times!  However, I quickly learned to appreciate how the foundation operates within Thai culture as this makes the staff more comfortable and encourages the community to embrace Warm Heart. Ironically, concepts like efficiency must be slightly compromised to create the most productive organization within the community.

Another first impression I had involved Thailand’s natural wonders. I was walking back to my room on my second night when I heard (and felt) a loud CRUNCH! My heart sunk as I
realized I had just brutally murdered another innocent snail. The small creatures and insects are my almost constant companions and it definitely adds an element of excitement to my stay here. With my handy flashlight and bug spray now faithfully in use, I don’t get bothered as often with those things.

During a typical week, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my days for Project Access visits. These days are spent making house calls to the same families every week. Most of them are just happy to have visitors coming to spend time with them. We ask about their lives, their interests, whether or not they need anything, and we do physical therapy with some of them. Sometimes they need a ride to the hospital, or a medication refill. Other times someone will request books or pictures. I really enjoy these visits, especially since we see the people regularly so I can really get to know them and obtain insights into their lives.

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Physical therapy with Beer

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Teaching therapy for Theap’s hand

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when not running other errands, fellow volunteer Ashley Ward and I worked on health initiatives for the children here at Warm Heart. Da, our translator, helped me create a Thai-English seizure response sheet that has now been posted in all the buildings and read through by the staff. One of the new children has epilepsy so it was important for the staff to understand how to respond to a seizure.

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Physical assessment of Warm Heart children

Da also helped me create a Thai-English physical assessment form. Warm Heart had not had any volunteers perform thorough physical assessments since 2013. We were able to offer this service for the children, screening them for health problems. We used the new Thai-English form to collaborate with some of the college-age Warm Heart students that are
interested in a career in healthcare. We showed the girls, Soda and New, how to gather basic information from the children such as weight and blood pressure. We also trained them to perform vision and hearing assessments.

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Soda performing a vision check

Through the physical assessments, we have found several deficiencies in the children’s health. Many of them need to see specialists such as dentists, dermatologists, otolaryngologists, and optometrists. Unfortunately, these crucial visits can be expensive. We will be soon be doing a fundraiser to help supplement these costs.

One of my favorite moments from the summer occurred during a public health visit. We had a bed-bound patient, named Sangha, who explained to us that he had been dealing with terrible discomfort in his legs for quite some time. With no car, he and his wife were quietly dealing with the chronic pain, using creams that they could find and various exercises in fruitless attempts to relieve the pain.

When we learned about his problem, we immediately went to a local pharmacist (who thankfully spoke some English) and explained the situation. From my knowledge of medications and the pharmacist’s expertise, we were able to find the perfect OTC pain medication. After we gave Sangha a few doses for a trial, we returned to his house and asked him how he felt. A wonderful smile crept across his face as he explained that he finally had relief from his pain. He requested more and we could tell that he was happier and more comfortable than he had been in a long time. 

His wife, who often experiences caregiver role strain, couldn’t thank us enough for improving both of their lives by providing this simple service. Sangha’s smile will forever stand in my mind as one of the reasons that I am passionate about healthcare. The privilege of offering comfort to a human with little else in the world is truly beyond compare.

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Sangha’s Smile

I am so thankful to Warm Heart for giving me the opportunity to serve through Project Access. I also enjoyed performing the physical assessments and carrying out the screenings of the Warm Heart kids. Knowing that many of them will soon be more comfortable and more prepared for school after receiving specialized treatment because of a project that I did brings me more joy than I can explain. As I prepare for my departure, I sincerely hope that my skills and energy have allowed me to make some positive impact on life at Warm Heart.  

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Memories of free-time activities and making friends in Thailand

(Rachel Harmon completed a two-month stay at Warm Heart)