Vol. I No. 9 Saturday 21 December - 27 December 2002
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Weekly Local Biography

 Somboon Suprasert (Auntie Boon)

 

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 only yesterday.

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 local culture.

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 uplifting afternoon!


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