Everyone has a favourite ‘Aunty’ - and
for Chiang Mai, that is ‘Aunty’ Boon, a 71-year-old bundle
of energy who has lived her life caring for those around her,
and in so doing has helped countless thousands of people all
over Thailand. She is one of the finest role models that
Thailand has for successive generations of Thai women.
Somboon (or Aunty Boon as I will take the
liberty to call her) was born in Thonburi, Bangkok. She was the
second child in a family of four girls and one boy, to a
government officer and his wife. Even though the family was not
rich in the financial sense, it was rich in another -
compassion. Her grandparents were practitioners of ‘Ancient
Medicine’ (Thai traditional) and exhibited the caring nature.
Her grandmother was also a midwife and the young Aunty Boon
would accompany her to do home deliveries when she was only 5
years old. Her mother was well known in their neighbourhood for
her large pots of curries and giving it out to the local people
around them. “She taught me to be kind and to give,” said
Aunty Boon. It also gave her an idea of what she herself should
do in the future. “I wanted to help people, but I didn’t
know how then.”
However, by the time she left school she knew
where she was heading, and that was to the Red Cross Hospital at
Chulalongkorn where she studied nursing for four years,
graduating as a Registered Nurse (RN) and Midwife.
She displayed a natural talent in nursing,
being moved to several provincial hospitals and very quickly
elevated from RN to assistant Head Nurse and then to Head Nurse
at the Hua Hin Hospital by the time she was 25 years old.
Following in her grandmother’s midwifery
footsteps she would do her rounds by tricycle or on foot, and
has done over 200 deliveries in Chiang Mai alone. She enjoyed
the hospital work too, reliving those days while telling me of
administering snake anti-venene and watching the patients come
out of a coma while she prayed for them.
It was in 1958 that her life was indelibly
changed when Aunty Boon won a scholarship to India. This was
part funded by UNICEF and she studied to be a Public Health
Nurse under that scholarship. Her childhood dream of helping
people was expanding. No longer was she just doing midwifery and
treating the sick, but now she was becoming involved in
promotion of ‘wellness’.
She returned to Chiang Mai to start the
Maternal and Child Health Unit, with the phrase ‘Prevention is
better than Cure’ as her catch-cry. She realised that this
required promotion as well as prevention but also came to
realise that you cannot just import concepts from one society
and expect them to operate efficiently in another. For the Thai
situation, it was necessary to modify some ideas to fit in with
the Thai social and cultural setting. Mind you, she still did
manage to vaccinate over 30,000 children!
The Ministry of Public Health spotted the
potential and the hard work that this Aunty Boon nurse was doing
and she was seconded to a TB project. “I’ve tested thousands
of people,” she said, eyes twinkling with delight. From there
it was onwards and upwards, becoming the Supervisor of the
Provincial Public Health Unit in Lampung. “I had my own Land
Rover and drove around 34 regions,” she said, as if it were
After some time she returned to Chiang Mai as
the Assistant Head of the Public Health Department and was then
asked to teach Public Health at the Chiang Mai University at the
School of Nursing.
It appeared there was no stopping her - and
there was not! She became a Visiting Professor (on exchange)
staying and lecturing in Korea and Taiwan. On her return she was
upgraded from the School of Nursing to the Faculty of Medicine
itself, where she began to exert her not insignificant influence
on the medical curriculum and teaching methods.
A further exchange followed, this time to
America, and she studied Family Medicine, bringing the
curriculum back to Thailand where she modified it to fit in with
Now around 1986 she felt that work had to be
done to prepare the public for the next wave of disease -
HIV/AIDS and she went to San Francisco to the world symposium to
see where world knowledge was heading.
On her return, she began to institute a
holistic approach to the problem. “We had no cure so we had to
rely on education, counselling, meditation, medication, exercise
and vocational training,” said the mini-powerhouse, into full
lecturing mode by this stage in the interview.
After retiring from full time work with CMU
in 1993, she did not quietly disappear - she threw herself even
more into public health and education, starting her ‘Thursday
Club’ as a support group for HIV/AIDS sufferers and following
that up with her Grandma Cares project. This is an example of
Aunty Boon’s lateral thinking - if a child’s parents succumb
to AIDS, who is left to look after these children? Grandma! So
train these women to cope with terminal patients and orphaned
children, all within the family/village networking support
system, and you have done a tremendous job in public health.
While she has benefited countless thousands,
there has been a time where she too needed help. This was when
her daughter died from cancer, and she dedicates much of her
projects to making merit for her departed daughter. For herself,
she relies on meditation to carry her through - which it has.
She realises that perhaps she should think of retiring,
“But the more I work, the more energy I have - to give to
work!” Having met people like Aunty Boon before, I can assure
Chiang Mai that she will not retire. Her influence and projects
will be around for a long while yet. Thank you Aunty Boon for an