“Enlighten your taste buds” reads the window of the storefront restaurant, Buddha Belly. Inside the bubbling and curry enriched place, just steps away from the entrance, are two third-year UF College of Medicine students. They are there not only to rouse patrons’ palates, but to make people aware of the needs of 500 Akha tribe orphans in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
“I lived in Japan for two years and was able to explore Thailand a lot as a tourist,” said Jaimie Johnson, a third-year medical student. “I knew then I wanted to return to be of service.”
On March 5, Johnson and classmate Jenn Johnson, no relation, will be among the first medical students to accompany a team from UF and Shands on a 10-day health mission to the northern Thailand village. But the trip did not start in Chiang Rai, nor was it planned to ever reach that area – or expected to become a “program” for that matter.
The origins of the trip began with one man and his team so desperate to help the citizens and vacationers of the Indian Ocean coast devastated by what is known as the deadliest tsunami in history: the tsunami that hit Phangnga and Phuket on Dec. 26, 2004.
Dr. Kevin Ferguson, director of critical care for the department of emergency medicine at the College of Medicine, a pediatrics professor, two nurses and a local Rotarian familiar with disaster relief funding set out with some medical supplies and only one known plan – to touch ground. After days of treating mostly water-borne illnesses, Ferguson’s phone rang.
“To this day I cannot tell you how they got our satellite phone number,” Ferguson said.
On the other end of the line was a kind couple who lived in the mountains several hours north of the devastation. The couple, David and Asa Stevenson, run the Children of the Golden Triangle orphanage in Chiang Rai and asked whether Ferguson’s team would come for a visit. The team obliged.
The Stevenson’s orphanage arose out of what was supposed to be their vacation. David Stevenson, an Australian, was traveling in the area several years ago when he met his wife, Asa, who belongs to the northern hill Akha tribe originating from Tibet. Along their travels in the area in 2000, they came across several wandering children.
“They found 10 to 15 children wandering the streets with no apparent supervision,” said Ferguson. The Stevensons took the children to the nearest town to see if anyone knew them, but no one did. In fact, the Stevensons were approached by several more orphaned children until they decided to purchase property in Chiang Rai and build a new home for them.
The Stevensons’ orphanage currently protects 500 boys and girls of all ages from exploitation, from being sold into sex slavery and even from death. They also provide the children with schooling since the tribe from Tibet is not recognized as Thai citizens and do not receive such privileges.
Since 2005, Ferguson has returned to the orphanage twice, and over the years he and his team have lowered the children’s risk of disease by administering vaccinations and encouraging simple improvements to their living conditions. For example, Ferguson suggested the Stevensons build the children bunk beds to prevent the contraction of diseases from environmental parasites. This small suggestion had great results, but created lots of laundry. So, Ferguson’s team purchased an industrial washer and dryer for them. Gardens of fresh produce were cultivated, and dorms for relief workers were built by the hands of the older male orphans.
Now equipped with expert knowledge of Chiang Rai’s health needs and terrain, Ferguson shared his experience with the Emergency Medicine Student Association in hopes of generating interest in the emergency medicine field.
“Emergency physicians are trained to take care of everything and figure out what to do if you’ve ‘never seen that’ before. There’s no residency lecture on elephant gorings,” Ferguson said, as he remembered the time he treated a man in Thailand for the wound.
The byproduct of his talk was the emergence of student interest in traveling to Thailand to provide such medical support.
Though they have not touched Thai soil yet this year, Ferguson’s team of 12 students, two nurses and one anthropologist has already started work for the children – work that will ensure care for the children while they are there and long after they have left.
“This year, we have begun creating a medical database for the children,” Ferguson said.
For each child, the Stevensons will create a chart which includes a photo, list of vaccinations and a growth chart. Ferguson’s team will complete the charts when they treat the children. This permanent medical record will be accessible to relief groups that visit the orphanage year round, ensuring the children receive comprehensive and continuous medical care.
The student travelers will pay their own way to visit the 500 Akha children. With limited time for financial planning, the Buddha Belly fundraiser was the only event scheduled to help alleviate some of the costs. Those wishing to help still can; however, by donating medical backpacks, pediatric medications and physical exam sets, antibiotics, and cash. Click here to check out the Project Thailand blog.
“(Dr. Ferguson) has a lot of energy, which is quite contagious,” said medical student Jenn Johnson. No doubt they will need the energy during the more than 24-hour trek to the northern hills of Thailand.