Medicine & Healthcare, Occupational Therapy in Thailand by Beth Pratt
At 26 years old, being a home owner and in full time employment I thought my opportunity to travel and see the world for anything more extended than allocated annual leave had been lost after graduation! However I continued to find the nagging sensation to explore another culture and live abroad was as strong as ever.
I realised it was now or never and decided to take the plunge!
Having only ever lived within a maximum distance of 1 hour from my parents and never having been abroad alone the whole concept of my forthcoming sabbatical was immediately an alien and daunting concept. And that was before I had even considered living with a non English speaking family, in an entirely different culture whilst also trying to be an Occupational Therapist.
The team at Projects Abroad made each step of the way as easy as possible. From applying for my project in Thailand to prompting me when to get my visa and what items would be suitable to pack. Prior to leaving the UK I was extremely nervous as I knew my project was quite far away from all the other volunteers and therefore I would be the only volunteer in Surat Thani. This had partly been why I chose this particular project as I wanted a challenge, to be completely immersed in a new way of life and to acquire as many opportunities as possible to fully appreciate the experience.
I was met at the airport by a member of the Projects Abroad team and felt lucky they spent the first weekend with me at my host family’s house; at least, initially, I had an interpreter. After introducing me to my placement at Surat Thani Hospital I was left to settle in on my own. I would then only have contact with the Projects Abroad team when I either visited the volunteer house in Krabi or they came to visit me regularly. I was expected to provide a weekly report and this therefore allowed me to update them on how I was getting on and ensure that I would receive the support I needed – if I needed it.
Over the weeks I made friends with staff and patients and started to learn how the hospital and Occupational Therapy department worked, how I could fit in and if I could share some of the specialist western treatments from England. It was not easy at first to just start treating patients; there are a lot of barriers you may not think of initially and language is actually the smallest! However with patience, an open mind and confidence I found I was able to learn a lot and also pass on valued and useful treatments and assessments.
My biggest and most enjoyable achievements within the work setting, during my 2 months in Thailand, were within both the Adult and Paediatric settings. Whilst in the Therapy Department one patient really stood out to me due to the severity of his condition; at 27 he had tragically had a large stroke which had resulted in significant cognitive and physical disability. During my time on the Occupational Therapy Project I worked with this patient and his family to improve his personal care tasks, speech, concentration, sitting and standing balance, awareness of his left side and how to overcome his visual deficit.
It was an amazing experience and I felt I was able to give more than I would in a western hospital - despite the limited resources - as the therapy sessions were as frequent as possible and this type of treatment was not provided by anyone else. One of my happiest memories is when this patient improved to the point where he could actually make jokes (although the joke was normally on me!).
Something that will stay with me for the rest of my life is the day a girl, a few years younger than me with a spinal cord injury that had left her paralysed, gave me a gift to say thank you for making her happy! I had showed her that with some slight changes in her methods she could still paint as she had before her car crash and this had been something she was very good at and passionate about. She told me I helped her to find her passion again and for that she gave me her paintings from both before and after her accident; I felt truly blessed that such a relatively small input could have such an impact.
I was also extremely proud of the treatment sessions I devised for the Children’s Therapy and as my Thai counterpart and I worked with the children over a short period we were all very proud of what we achieved!
During each one to one therapy session with a child I encouraged them to learn to paint and carry out arts and crafts. Step by step each child helped to create a colourful ‘Occupational Therapy’ sign using different techniques including sticking, cutting, painting and drawing. It was a real team effort and a beautiful creation that will stay in the department for years to come. The smiles on the parent’s faces when they saw what their sons and daughters had achieved were wonderful as often these children do not attend mainstream school and their achievements at school are often limited.
The experience at the hospital was extremely fulfilling, however it would not have been possible had I not had a supportive, generous and kind host family who completed the Thailand experience for me.
I know I was very lucky to have such a wonderful family, however this was also experienced by many of my volunteer friends I made along the way – many of them felt they had a ‘home from home’ experience and this made being away from loved ones slightly easier. I was able to take part in Thai family culture from going to weddings to making dinner, working with them in their shop and going on family days out. Plus, it was fun teaching them English whilst learning Thai!
During my time in Thailand I got the opportunity to explore the country and was able to visit different places on the weekends with the other volunteers, work friends or my family and this allowed me to see the different parts of the country - which was an interesting alternative to what I was used to when living in a small provincial town! Every volunteer had a different reason for being there and different perspectives on the experience which makes you open your mind and learn about yourself even further.
I am so glad I took this leap. It was a life changing experience that I would recommend to anyone who has that nagging need; you won’t look back – only wonder why you didn’t do it sooner!