In Udon Thani, Thailand, a northern city of just over 300, 000, dirt roads curve and sprawl through dusty back roads but then almost immediately turn into crowded high ways alongside vast rice fields and swampland. The beauty of the Udon Thani is in its diversity and ability to hold on its history and culture, at the same time as stretch respectfully toward the future.
The first leg of our trip in Udon Thani was meant to prepare us for our service work. We spent roughly 6 days at their Ricefields Base, a beautiful location set on a working rice field, across the street from a Buddhist temple and right outside a small, but busy residential town. Aside from team-building activities at night and a couple nights out on the town, and an incredible conversation about enlightenment and overcoming personal adversity with a monk, our main priority was to prepare us to assist nearby villages with their healthcare needs.
We spent 3 days in class, learning first about what health care and first-aid looks like in the wilderness where hospitals and medical professionals are limited. The WFA (Wilderness First-Aid) certification course prepares individuals to respond to medical disasters safely and with professionalism, compassion and a necessary vision.
The hands-on course walked us through a dozen hypothetical situations that would help us to develop the critical thinking skills needed to not just respond to emergencies, but help better prepare us for any situation.
The course, though technically meant for the wilderness, or outdoors, urges students to become stewards of their own communities and rather see "wilderness" as any place that does not have immediate access to medical care. In other words, an elevator with no cell service could be considered "wilderness" even if it's just blocks from a hospital. A difficult hike with ill-prepared hikers might be "wilderness" even if its within a few miles of medical help because of the problems heat and dehydration cause to a person's state of mind as well as their physical condition. A plane could be considered "wilderness" because of the time it would take for an individual to receive help they might need in the case of emergency. The course teaches preparation for life and for saving life. During this course, we learned how to analyze emergency situations in regards to the injured and the physical parameters; provide immediate care specific to those in need; and determine severity of an issue and any particulars in order to properly assist medical professionals and evacuation teams. It was an amazing, eye-opening course that every person should take. Should any of us seek further education, our current certification would help us become trained medical first-responders, a credential any person should be proud to have.
Many families in Udon Thani and its outskirts don't have access to the health care they need, and medical professionals who work in the cities rarely make it out to the villages where their help is mostly needed. Families will travel days for medical care in the event of an emergency and then wait in long lines, sometimes 24 hours, to be seen. To help eliminate crowded lines and clear clinic waiting rooms, the doctors rely on health care and volunteer-based organizations such as Rustic Pathways to go to these villages, The volunteers will visit both children and elderly, and recording medical information for the doctors. Afterwards, the doctors will go through the records and determine which patients and villages are most in need of care and require immediate attention.
Being a part of this team and knowing the worth we have to these villages and these doctors was a respectable endeavor; but being able to actually go to the temple and provide care to 60 elderly people and then a school of over 100 was an unforgettable experience.
As one might expect, our awesome team of Kaiser students were well-prepared after training and enthusiastic (though perhaps a little anxious at first) about the chance to serve this community. Our first session took place early morning at a nearby temple. We set up our medical station on the temple grounds and waited for patients. At 8 o'clock, they began to arrive and our make-shift medical clinic began to bustle. As each patient went through each station, they laughed with each other and us, happy to be with us and to be receiving care. We tried out our fresh vocab, trying to making them feel comfortable and calm, though it mainly just brought giggles and smiles. Sawatdee! (Hello) Sabaaidi mai? (How are you?) Sabaiidi (I'm good!) Kon Chun Arai? (What is your name?) Pom chu Paul. (My name is Paul.) Each person's check-up took about 5 minutes and ended with a bowl of soup, and a Khop Kun (Thank you!)!
The second session of the day was at a nearby school. The students were so happy to see us and their curious faces were filled with wonder and excitement as they came in, 1, 2, 3 at a time and got checked for lice, sores and any other concerns that we could spot at a glance. We used a checklist for this session and made markings for severity or frequency of certain issues, like cuts on their hands (maybe from playing in the yard) or sores on their arms (possibly minor untreated infections or mysterious lesions or bumps.) We were saddened to see how many students had lice, and we suspect the school was sent proper medical care shortly thereafter.
Towards the end of our Udon Thani trip, we had the rare opportunity to meet with two villagers that Rustic has a special relationship with. The first was a mother and her daughter who has been disabled from birth. They were abandoned by the father, who left with the other healthy daughter. In an area where survival and healthcare is such a complex issue, a mother and daughter in this state suddenly abandoned by the only adult able to work full-time would ordinarily be a serious matter. The elder son had also left and went to college at a university in Bangkok. The family and the community are still hoping and praying he returns to the village to use his education and help their situation. In the meantime, Rustic has chosen this family as one of the many they provide specialized care for. Hearing this story and understanding the already dire situation much of this area is in anyhow in regards to health care was heartbreaking.
While we sat with her on her living room straw-woven mat and talked for a while, it was easy to understand that there are large parts of life and living on this planet that are just too far outside our grasp, that if we don't at least try to get there, and be there, mind, body and spirit, we'll never see them and never allow for those parts of ourselves to grow.
Perhaps this encounter and this part of the trip was the most significant for me. Our time in Udon Thani had really opened all our eyes to much larger issues that don't quite make it into our little corners of this world, that books, film and studies don't come close to touching.