Weekly Local Biography

  Dr. Prapas Pothongsunun

The patient had recently had an accident followed by arthroscopic surgery, and I watched as the physical therapist worked on his knee. He spoke in English to his patient and explained what the referring surgeon had asked him to do. Then he spoke in Thai to the student who was listening and observing intently, instructing her on the technique he was using to reduce swelling at the surgical site.

Prapas Pothongsunun holds both masters and doctoral degrees in physical therapy from New York University, earned ten years apart while he gained valuable university and hospital experience at home in Thailand. A professor at Chiang Mai University, he also practices at the Mae Ping Physical Therapy Clinic, which is tucked down in a little shopping and office area, but all you have to do is ask any of the neighboring business people and they can point it out. The doctor is well known in his neighborhood.

Dr. Prapas practices hands-on healing, and itís easy to see that he likes people. While he spends many hours teaching his students the fundamentals of his profession, he says that what he really enjoys is working with the patients and instructing the students in a clinical setting. He expresses great appreciation for the independence of an 84 year old patient who insists on driving herself to his clinic for treatment. He patiently instructs a young man injured while playing rugby on techniques to prevent further injury to his clavicle. He says that physical therapists have to learn to do each exercise that they teach so that they can demonstrate the movements to their patients. He discusses treatment options with the knee patient, while massaging his knee with a lotion of aloe and herbs. He gently examines a youngsterís spine; her worried mother sits by. They talk about the childís medical needs, and he writes down information for the mother.

Prapas always wanted to be a physical therapist, even though the profession was not well known in Thailand when he first entered training at Mahidol University. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Prapas continued with his studies in physical therapy. It was important to his father that he help a lot of people, and Prapas knew that he was doing just that. His aunt, a medical technologist, encouraged him. She understood the developing sciences that would eventually be critical in the care of many people. A year and a half of basics, then he was off every day on a Chao Phraya riverboat to Siriraj Hospital for practical, hands-on clinical training. The knowledge base for physical therapy came from a Thai physician who had studied in the United States. Prapas spent two and a half years commuting by boat to the hospital, graduated and began practice there. He read the professional journals, and he knew there was still a lot to learn. His colleagues discouraged him. They knew all they needed to know, they claimed, but Prapas kept reading.

After only a year of practice, he decided that he wanted to go to the United States for graduate studies. Information was not easy to obtain. This was before there was an internet caf้ on every corner with an ADSL connection. Research was cumbersome, and often by hand. Getting information from abroad took weeks. Prapas found a wealth of information at the AUA library, and began writing to America for further information. Most universities would not accept him because of his limited practical experience, but a small school on Long Island was willing to take a chance. Prapas went to his father, and asked for help. And his father understood and helped him to go abroad.

After a year at Long Island University, the prestigious New York University accepted him into its masterís program. He completed both his academic studies and his clinical work, and did his research on the effects of superficial heat and deep heat (ultrasound), on tissue healing. A new graduate degree in hand, he returned home to practice.

But the need to learn always called, and ten years later Prapas was again making his way to New York University to enter a doctoral program. Again successful, this time completing his research on the neck flexor muscles, he returned to Chiang Mai to clinical work. It is obvious as we talk that he loves working directly with patients.

But Dr. Prapas is also a researcher with a strong appreciation for the latest technology. A post-surgical patient has brought him a DVD of his entire surgical procedure. The instruments used are state-of-the-art, and the surgeonís technique is flawless. The advances in technology and the opportunity to share this information with colleagues and students alike are exciting. His colleague in his clinic watches the DVD and asks questions while Dr. Prapas works with a patient.

Does he choose only the best and brightest students to work with him in his clinic? Well, no. They are too likely to be solely focused on the academics of the profession, and Dr. Prapas seeks students who are flexible, consistently motivated to learn, and who have the skills and compassion to interact with people who are in distress. His students are bright, of course, but he seeks humanitarians rather than technicians. Then he teaches the techniques.

Prapas Pothongsunun is a man at peace with himself, someone who advises his students to exercise at least twice a week rather than sit in front of the television. He says he has learned to be completely with his patients when he is working with them, but to leave it all behind when he leaves his practice. He swims a full kilometer several days a week, alternating swimming and sauna until he is relaxed. His stress management techniques are enviable. He is someone who annually tests his own fitness by walking up the steps at Wat Doi Suthep without pausing to rest, a man who retreats to the forest at Songkran to replenish his energy and restore his soul. Each of us can learn from him.