Weekly Local Biography

  Luc Masschelein

The program officer for the Foundation for Disabled Children in Thailand is a man who has had more catastrophic events happen to him than most of us would ever experience in several lifetimes. Yet this 40-year-old man just seems to bob up for more, when the rest of us would be lying down, licking our metaphorical wounds.

Luc is Belgian, or rather, Flemish (they get intensely nationalistic - just say the words “french-fries” and watch what happens). He went to school in Belgium, and was a happy gregarious, active youngster. He finished his secondary schooling and had begun study in Clinical Biology, when a trip downstairs changed his life forever. He was knocked unconscious and had fractured his spine at the 5th thoracic vertebral level, severing his spinal cord.

After one week when he began to regain consciousness and could again open his eyes, he found that he could do little else. He well remembers the doctor coming to see him and uttering the fateful words, “You will never walk again!”

Thirteen months later he left hospital in his wheelchair and hoped to return to study clinical biology, to find that this course was denied to him, as being considered not suitable for someone stuck in a wheelchair. He was told to choose another career, and he quickly chose accountancy. “I made a fast choice and a wrong choice,” said Luc, “because I hate accountancy!”

After three years of the ‘wrong choice’, he went back to study Computer Engineering and has a degree in this field, but it was still not the correct path for someone who liked to work with people. Someone who needed social contact.

Social work looked more apt for the young paraplegic, so he returned to study psychology for a year and then two years of social work. “My accident only made me realize there are people who need help. It also made accepting my own situation easier.” Thus armed (even if not legged), he went to work in the personnel department of a sheltered workshop covering 600 disabled people.

This led to his becoming involved in humanitarian aid work which took Luc and his wheelchair to Zaire, Hungary, Romania, the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine, where he looked after disabled children, the victims of wars thrust upon them by adults ready to sacrifice anyone for their causes.

This had a deep and lasting effect upon Luc. “The genocide in Zaire - I had to leave, it was just terrible. I had to think deeply. I cannot solve the world’s problems. My job is to help children. If you can help one a day you can be happy.”

During this time, Luc was also exposed to family stresses. His first wife was unable to cope with a husband in a wheelchair, while his second wife died tragically from an aggressive cancer aged 34. Since then he met his current wife Marigke, and at least that side of his life began to settle comfortably.

To ‘get away from it all’ Luc came to Thailand for a vacation in 1997, and immediately found that there were restrictions placed upon him. “I wanted to ride on an elephant, but it is difficult in Thailand for disabled people.”

Despite this, they enjoyed Thailand and two months later they returned, eventually doing this many times. However, back in Europe, Luc was now the assistant director of the sheltered workshop, a promotion perhaps, but not one that Luc was enjoying. “I didn’t like it as I had no social contact.”

He might have continued in Europe, other than the fact that he was about to be hit with another disaster. He suffered a stroke (brain haemorrhage). Not one, but two! He lost the sight in one eye and his vision decreased to only 40 percent in the other. He needed another five months in rehabilitation and the experience was to colour his vision, if one can be so crass with the pun. “We decided to leave Belgium. We couldn’t continue to stay there. The mentality of the people, with everyone looking at the ground. Always bad weather. Everyone is in a hurry. So we sold everything in Belgium and came here.”

Of course, while here he hoped to change things for the disabled in Thailand. He had already seen the problem. “People try to do something, but they forget to ask the disabled people what they need.” As part of the perceived need, Luc knew that community based rehabilitation for children was a priority and so they formed the Foundation for Disabled Children in Thailand, registered in Belgium. He became acquainted with Dr. Samai, the director of the Rajanahindra Institute for Child Development and Douglas Tell from the “Wheels of Hope” whose help he acknowledges, and is now seeing positive results. “Put a wheelchair in the back of a pick-up and the children come out of the villages. You begin to realize how spoiled disabled people are in Europe, complaining about their wheelchairs, when these children haven’t got one.”

When not working for others who are handicapped, Luc spends his available moments maintaining his own fitness and will cover 80-90 km a day in his racing wheelchair and has competed at an ‘Elite A’ international level in Europe, rated 10th in the world in 2002, and can cover the 42 km marathon distance in 1 hr. 25 minutes. “I’m quite fast,” said Luc. Since he can also do 82 kph downhill in his chariot, I agree with him!

However, one area that he does not want to go too fast is in the development of the Foundation. “We have to give the Foundation to the Thai people. It is their country, but we need to teach parents how to cope with the problems experienced by their children and start a self-support group for the parents themselves.” And after Thailand? “We might go to another country, but I don’t want to run before I can walk,” said Luc mischievously!