Weekly Local Biography

  Warangkana Wannawongs

Warangkana Wannawongs came to our rescue when we were wandering around the hospital seven years ago with two vials of Japanese encephalitis vaccine. Complete novices to the ways of hospitals in Thailand, she saw our confused expressions. With a polite and efficient introduction, we were taken to the registration desk. A few minutes later we were the proud owners of identification cards that contained the all-important ďHNĒ, hospital number, which would officially carry us though any hospital visit we were to have in the future. Two injections and we were gone, but Warangkana Wannawongs, better known as Nurse Gai, has helped us navigate the health care system since that first pleasant meeting.

I sat in her office this morning, and listened to her talk about family, education, and personal challenges. She is gentle and caring, and she has a delightful sense of humor telling childhood stories. Her father was a government teacher, the son of a government teacher, and he was teaching in Chiang Rai when she was born. When the family had a second daughter, they came home to Chiang Mai. A government school had been built in Sansai, the gift of a generous Thai woman, and Gaiís father settled into teaching there. Gai remembers that she went to kindergarten at this school, going to and from class with her father. Her mother made Thai desserts at home that she took to the market in the morning, the villages later in the day. Her mother would later open a kindergarten. Recognition of the value of education is deeply ingrained in this family.

Gai completed Dara Academy, going to school from Sansai to the academy every day in a songtaew. This is where she began to study English language. Then she entered Yupparaj Wittayalai School for her high school years. She remembers that tuition was affordable to the family at 600 baht a year.

On graduation, she was accepted at four different colleges to study nursing. She could have stayed home and attended either local universityís nursing school, but her father decided that the time had come for her to become independent. So off she went to the Thai Red Cross College of Nursing in Bangkok. Gai says she was scared and a little angry at being gently shoved out of the nest, but she went off to Bangkok and soon discovered that the College of Nursing was a very sheltered and protected environment for its students. At times, too sheltered to suit the teenagers who were learning to be nurses, of course. Her big freshman class suddenly dwindled to a much smaller group the second year. Some of the students were scared of blood, some couldnít talk to sick people, but Gai says she learned to care for patients with both her hands and her heart. And she learned to appreciate the independence that her profession would give her, the knowledge of patient care that could not be taken away.

When she graduated, she worked at Chulalongkorn Hospital, taking private duty nursing jobs at Bumrungrad Hospital on her days off. It was on one of those private duty jobs that she began to develop the confidence to speak English with patients. Her patient, an elderly gentleman from Burma, spoke English. His family spoke English, and his daughter was a professor of English at a university in Rangoon. Gaiís English language skills would open doors for her in the future.

Gai had studied nursing on a scholarship, so she worked the required two years in a government hospital, Chulalongkorn, to pay off her debt. Then she returned home to Chiang Mai and went to work at Suan Dok Hospital in the obstetrics department.

When Gai went off to nursing school, the medical field was new to her and her family. She didnít know about the night shift and being on call. She didnít understand the stress of being away from family so frequently and on holidays. But she was married now and had a young child, and she wanted to spend more time with her husband and baby. She decided to return to university and work on a masterís degree in biology, thinking that she could then teach and enjoy more regular hours with her family. She was accepted into the program at Chiang Mai University and her schedule became a grueling work at night and study by day. As the time approached to do the research for her thesis, she resigned from her nursing job and concentrated on the academics. And, oh, how she wanted to simply quit! In the middle of it all she and her husband had a new baby. There wasnít enough time in the day Ė or night.

But she successfully completed her degree and found herself back practicing nursing. This time, she was at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital in the outpatient department. Those forward-thinking folks liked the combination of a nursing degree with a masterís in biology, and they liked those English language skills. Chiang Maiís expatriate community and tourists from all over the world frequented Ramís outpatient department, and Gai was always there to shepherd them.

One day Gai saw a job opportunity that seemed made just for her. The U.S. Consulate General was opening up a half time position for a nurse to better serve the Consulate community. She says she didnít have to even think it over. She asked her supervisor to reduce her hours by half, fully intending to work in both places if she got the Consulate job. She not only got it, it was increased to a full time position about a year later. She loves her work. Itís different from a hospital job, requiring a lot of research on her part. She guides and teaches and nurses. She constantly seeks further education.

As we ended our time together, Gai spoke about her profession. She says that every patient should be treated with respect, even those who are unconscious. ďSick people need medication and technologyĒ, she says, ďbut they also need loving care.Ē