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
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
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
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
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.