Ward has seen many changes in the practice of medicine in the
west since he started out in Boulder, Colorado in the USA over
thirty years ago. A cardiologist, he is also a humanitarian, a
man who wants to talk to his patients rather than simply input
data into a bedside computer.
He says that medicine has become big business
with its legal constraints and myriad of insurance limitations.
He went along with the developing technology at first, but then
found himself distanced from his patients by it. This kind of
medicine was not his passion. Over the years he became bored,
and found no challenge anymore in what he was doing. Many people
in his position would have retired. Considering the stress of
his profession, it would have been understandable. But he wanted
change, not retirement. He has a lot to give the world. He knew
that his children, who are 13 and 15 years old, would be grown
and gone soon. This was the time for the whole family to join
together for the adventure of a lifetime.
So Jon and Maggi put their heads together and
talked over their options. The children’s education was of
primary concern. Both are talented girls – music, theater,
dance, gymnastics are part of their lives. They would not be
going to the wilds of Africa or a remote island. Their research
led them to Asia, and the desire for a high quality of life for
the whole family led them to Chiang Mai five months ago.
Jon was born in Florida, but graduated from
Davidson College in North Carolina. His first international
experience came as a 19 year old when he participated in an
exchange program and lived briefly in Germany. After graduation,
he entered medical school at Duke University. He did research
for a year and a half in Colorado, and then went to Florida to
complete his residency. But Jon didn’t limit himself to
working in his home country. In 1973 he went for a while to
Sulenkama in South Africa to practice. He was the only physician
in a remote little Presbyterian mission hospital – this was
during the time of apartheid – and found himself working
collaboratively with the village witch doctors. When their magic
didn’t work, Dr. Jon was called in. After six rewarding
months, he moved again, this time going to Taubate in Brazil.
Here he taught, and learned the language so well that he was
able to teach in his students’ native Portuguese. He has a
flair for languages, but says he has been “humbled” by Thai.
The University of Washington to complete a
residency in cardiology came next. He bought a house in
Telluride and joined a practice in Denver. The big city didn’t
agree with him, but nearby Boulder did. And that’s where he
set up his practice in this very intensive medical specialty. By
the time he left thirty years later, it had grown to include
eight cardiologists. But a good practice wasn’t all Jon found
in Boulder. He met Maggi there, and she would become his wife.
And here his face changes into the nicest of
smiles as we talk. Maggi was at the University of Colorado, a
dancer. She brings, he says, “a good balance to my life.” He
went to all of the dance performances, and Maggi became his
partner in life. He talks about her energy, her intellect, and
her commitment to their family and the community. They have two
daughters, Leah and Alexis. And that brings us back to the
family and their adventures in Chiang Mai.
Jon is teaching at Chiang Mai University now,
but it wasn’t an easy transition. He didn’t join the Faculty
of Medicine as part of an established medical exchange program.
As he has always done, he came independently. That means he has
had the sometimes trying experience of managing visa and work
permit and the entire myriad of official paperwork
He and Maggi searched for suitable housing
alone, and were fortunate to find a big home in a private
compound within walking distance of the girls’ school. Jon
bought a bicycle and rides all over the city. But, while it has
been challenging to come without sponsorship, it also means that
he has had the opportunity to interact with his colleagues as an
individual rather than as a representative of an official
program. He says that he is honored to be accepted by them,
although he occasionally upsets the routine by challenging a
young student to take a stand and to question authority. He
admires his colleagues. They read the latest research from all
over the world, taking pertinent portions and applying it
locally. He is impressed with the Thai system of medicine, with
the ethics applied to research.
I asked what he had observed about heart
disease in Thailand, how it differs from what he experienced in
the west. Western obesity is a big risk factor, the cause of a
huge loss of life. In Thailand, the bad air quality makes an
impact on heart health. Few people exercise regularly. There is
a problem with high blood pressure, particularly untreated high
blood pressure. And the fats that are used in cooking here are
often not the “good” kind of fat. So there are problems,
many of which can be controlled by individuals in order to
decrease their risk of heart disease. But in both the west and
in Thailand, one of the major risk factors associated with heart
disease is smoking cigarettes. And the decision to smoke is
being made more and more frequently by young people in Thailand
as western tobacco companies target them in their advertising.
Jon says that smoking cigarettes, despite the advertising
message, is decidedly not “cool”.
How long will the family be in Chiang Mai,
and what will he do after this? They don’t know how long they
will stay. It’s good here, and the family is thriving.
“There will always be”, Jon Ward says, “opportunities to
give and help”.