Weekly Local Biography

  Jonathan Ward

Jonathan 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 independently.

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”.