Vol. III No. 37 - Saturday September 11 - September 17 2004
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Weekly Local Biography

  Martin Woodtli

The managing director of Baan Kamlangchay is a quietly spoken Swiss, Martin Woodtli. He is a man who has known much personal sorrow in his life, and yet that has not stopped him doing what he can for others. Those ‘others’ have incurable conditions, but they are still people who cannot be ignored. Especially when one of them is your own mother.

Martin was an only son, born in Berne to a psychiatric nurse father, and his mother stayed at home to raise and nurture him. A simple housewife, but the noblest of all professions.

Every year, Martin’s father would take patients from the mental hospital up into the Swiss mountains for a holiday, and as a young boy, Martin would go with them. “I suppose that all my life I have been exposed to people with problems,” he mused.

He progressed through school, heading towards university. He excelled in sport and was the Swiss national team 1500 meters representative. Sport was so much of his life that he chose to study commerce, because the hours fitted in with his athletics!

He received his degree in commerce, but an accident changed his entire future direction. Though not life-threatening, he was no longer able to compete at the highest level of athletics. “This made me sit down and think about life a little more,” said Martin.

He could see a need, possibly fuelled by his father being in one of the caring professions, and so he rejected the commercial fields and spent the next four years studying to be a social worker and educator.

He began work amongst those addicted to drugs and alcohol in Zurich, whilst at the same time studying Gestalt Therapy in Munich. This was also the early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and in 1986, Martin and other professional colleagues set up an AIDS foundation, with Martin working for it full time. “I provided counselling for people with HIV/AIDS.” This he did for five years. I asked him what was it that had made him move into that field, especially as in 1986 AIDS was uniformly fatal, being represented in many countries as the Grim Reaper. “I like issues that can open up some of the taboos in society. It was a bit of a challenge.” (And that last sentence is a masterpiece in understatement!)

After five years he needed a break. “An opportunity came up to visit Bangkok to catch up with a journalist I knew who was working there.” He spent two months in the nation’s capital, and Thailand left an indelible mark.

He returned to Switzerland and joined the Medecins Sans Frontiers international medical aid group who wanted to open an AIDS community-based care program - in Thailand. He moved to Thailand and worked here for two years setting up the ‘suburban’ centers, involved in both treatment and preventive work. He extended this to four years, but then felt he should return to Switzerland, and to his parents, who were now getting older.

He returned and took a job in the refugee service assisting people, who had been granted asylum, with integration. Having been an alien in a foreign country himself no doubt made him understand their problems even more acutely. He was to spend three years with the refugee service, but the final 12 months was very difficult for him personally.

His parents were always very close, so much so that Martin described them as having a ‘symbiotic’ relationship. “My father was becoming worried as my mother was becoming increasingly forgetful,” and in retrospect it was becoming obvious that his mother was developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Testing confirmed the awful diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s Disease is one that we pray we do not get. Not for ourselves, but for our loved ones. To watch a parent or partner lose his or her faculties, so that they do not even know who you are, is soul destroying. The person you know and love is still there physically on the outside, but inside, all of the wonderful personality quirks and memories that make the person special have gone. That person is physically still there, but mentally has departed. It is a death without being able to say ‘goodbye’. It was too much for Martin’s father, who became depressed and eventually committed suicide.

Martin moved into his parent’s house and took over her care. “I wanted to see what could be done, but I also knew I had to do something for myself.” For a professional and a deep thinker like Martin Woodtli, he knew that was necessary to avoid his father’s fate. The answer appeared to be to move to Thailand, with his mother.

He brought her here for one month for evaluation. “After one month it was clear - we would stay in Chiang Mai.” Mother was doing well, and Martin could see that somehow Thailand was good for his mother.

However, Alzheimer’s patients need 24 hour care. “They need personal assistance, love, tenderness, convivial atmosphere and climate.” He found that the friendly nature of Thai people produced excellent carers. He set up Baan Kamlangchay as an experiment, but after 12 months knew he was on the right track.

He offered the facilities as respite care for European Alzheimer’s patients and the concept is being tried by others with patients arriving at a facility which is probably unique. A facility staffed by Thais who welcome and interact with whatever intellect is left in these poor souls, backed with medical assistance from the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. It is heartbreaking, yet uplifting, all at the same time.

Martin Woodtli may have discovered, not the cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, but perhaps the best therapy for everyone involved.

His mother now settled, Martin has too, getting married a few weeks ago. “My life has changed, but my wife and I are developing a spa concept for Alzheimer’s patients,” he said, breaking into a broad grin. I think we all wish Martin, and his mother, the very best for the future.

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