Weekly Local Biography

  Dr. Anusorn Kunanusorn

He was granted a private scholarship to study English and other foundation courses in preparation for graduate school, but Anusorn Kunanusorn felt like he was in jail rather than in college. He was the only Thai person at Illinois College in the United States, and the only way he could communicate in his own language was to write letters or read. But Illinois College had a lot of experience with foreign students, and he soon found himself living with an American couple, two professors, both of whom held doctorate degrees. And he soon found himself thinking of them as his American mom and dad.

His “dad” was a musician, and his “mom” was a linguist. Anusorn learned to speak English quickly and quite well. His adopted home was highly organized. Meals were served at 7 a.m., 12 noon and 6 p.m. sharp. No junk television was allowed – no bad movies, no soap operas, no shoot ‘em up cowboy shows. The family talked about everything, and Anusorn soaked it all up. He soon discovered that his German mom’s aunt had won a Nobel Prize in biology and her uncle had been awarded the same prize in chemistry. He says that he was so impressed that his knees went weak! Obviously he thrived.

He was born in Chiang Mai. His family had come from Lamphun so that their children would have better educational opportunities. He attended Prince Royal’s College, then entered Chiang Mai University and graduated with a degree in economics. He taught at Payap University, and was happy to have the opportunity to study abroad. He learned English in Illinois, and stayed in the U.S. to complete both a master’s and a Ph.D. in finance. Finance seems to run in the family. His Thai-Chinese father was part of the traditional Chinese banking system.

He completed both of his graduate degrees at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. How he got to this tiny town was a mystery to me, so I asked. A friend, an educator, had studied there. She recommended it for a variety of reasons. It was not too expensive and the climate was good, it didn’t get either too cold or too dry. Most importantly, though, Anusorn didn’t like big cities. He reasoned that in a small town, you aren’t distracted so you study. And he wanted that education.

There were thirteen other Thai people at the university, most studying education and political science. And even though he had studied at Illinois, he was not prepared for the southern United States’ obsession with football. On Saturday afternoons, the whole campus came alive with massive traffic jams, tailgate parties, music blasting out of the stadium and the cheers of the crowd. He learned about crawfish and barbeque, but still went to neighboring Memphis, Tennessee every month to buy Asian groceries. He became an expert tour guide for visitors, showing them Beale Street and its jazz clubs and Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Back in Oxford, he witnessed a Ku Klux Klan parade. He had good professors. As he neared the completion of his studies, he had some lucrative job offers. When it was all over, though, degrees in hand, he came home to Thailand and went back to Payap to teach.

In 1991 he was a Fulbright scholar and taught in Washington State for a year. He was the only Asian professor, but his business courses were always full. APEC and ASIAN were unknown to American students, and he was determined to add Asia to their vocabularies. Back in Chiang Mai again, he organized his university classes for study tours in the United States.

At Payap he gradually rose through the academic ranks until he became the Vice President of Academic Affairs as well as Planning and Development. When his mentor and friend, Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae retired, he, too, left the university for Bangkok and a very lucrative contract.

A luxurious condominium and a car and driver were part of the perks. It was a lifestyle that many would envy. But Anusorn doesn’t like big cities, and he missed Chiang Mai. Most of all, though, he knew that big business was not for him. So when the search committee at McKean Rehabilitation Center called him, he was happy to leave it all and come home. We’re glad he did. That was ten years ago, and he had his work cut out for him.

McKean was not a hospital at that time, but was classified as a special treatment unit for the treatment and rehabilitation of Hansen’s Disease, leprosy. Leprosy was still highly stigmatizing. The disease had long been curable through the use of an antibiotic regimen, and the staff had developed both surgical procedures and prosthetic devices to help overcome the disabling effects of nerve damage.

Anusorn set about upgrading everything to meet the Ministry of Public Health’s requirements as a charter hospital. Being a charter hospital would mean insurance reimbursements, qualification for government funding, recognition of staff and important credibility. The staff did such a good job that when the Ministry sent its inspectors, they accredited sixty beds instead of the anticipated thirty. Little by little, step by step, Anusorn has worked with staff and outside agencies to solve the financial stressors at what is now known as McKean Hospital. As a finance person, he knows that the hospital must become a sustainable institution to survive.

Dr. Anusorn Kunanusorn says that it’s time to eradicate the stigma of leprosy. To do that he encourages tours. One local guide leads bicycle tours and cycles through the grounds with entire groups. He knows the history so well that no staff has to accompany him. But staff can arrange tours for other groups. And your understanding of McKean Hospital and its history will help eradicate the misperceptions about leprosy that still abound. When you’re there, don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for a sample of the lovely crafts made by patients and
former patients. You will be amazed.