After a year long volunteering assignment in Thailand with my husband, we decided to extend our stay for an additional 6 months. We knew that we wouldn’t get the chance for this kind of long-term volunteering in the near future, but also had fallen in love with our new Thai community.
However, just when I thought it was going to be smooth sailing, the winds changed. The decision was made to go home and visit our friends and family on our year anniversary; however, after we returned, everything was harder than I expected. Within a week my husband ended up with a severe case of food poisoning and one of the new volunteers made an unexpected departure home. Our main support person was preoccupied with her mentor’s health problems, which was understandable given she was 97 years old. Just as things were starting to settle down, I accidentally exposed myself to a known allergen, and a previous skin allergy came back with a vengeance. Meanwhile my husband and I were going through a rough patch, and our friends and family back home were less available than usual.
And then I had weeks like this that helped shift my mindset. We took a trip to the hospital, so my husband could help bathe a very sick patient as he is a nurse. She has HIV/AIDS resulting in cryptococcal meningitis and pneumonia. Her breathing was supported with an apparatus and she had a bedsore. We watched her friends and family members assist with her care including regular position changes to prevent further bedsores, as this is part of Thailand’s healthcare system and culture. Her bright, lively nine-year-old daughter kept our spirits up the entire time. And I remember how blessed I am.
Later I joined the staff for remote village outreach. We visited a seven-month-old baby. The mother had complications with the birth, and her baby boy ended up with a neurological disorder. He cries most of the day, and when he cries, his body goes rigid. He could attend physical therapy every weekday, but they live too far away from the hospital to go more than once per week. In the meantime, we all experienced 45 minutes with the baby, and he only stopped crying for a minute or two of that. His teenage mom displayed an immense amount of patience, love, and care for him. And I remember how privileged I am.
Another stop for the outreach team that day was to visit a patient we know well. He is paralyzed from the neck down, and he lies on a bamboo platform all day while his mother works in the field during the rice harvest. To change his position, he uses his head and neck as momentum to rock the rest of his body. My husband John and another staff member pick him up and take him behind his simple three-walled home to bathe him. John clipped his toe and fingernails, another staff member cleaned out his ears, and I finished our visit with a short massage to his limbs as I am a licensed massage therapist. And I remember how easily I can move my own body.
At Thanksgiving we had overnight duty at our affiliated long-term care center and were not able to communicate with our families. I finally connected with them the following day, and spent most of my time chatting with my teenage and young adult nieces and nephews. They were making decisions, finding internships or volunteer placements for next summer already, finding employment after college, preparing performances for an upcoming talent show audition. And I remember how much love I have in my life.
We have been volunteering in Thailand for the last 17 months, and although it has not all been a bed of roses, thankfully you find gratitude in more places than you think. Gratitude finds you during times you need it the most. I recently read that we will always have times of consolation and desolation, and neither will last forever. It’s hard to remember when we are in the midst of the difficult times, however it’s equally important to remember that the good times have an expiration date as well. The suggestion was made to create good practices in good times, to lighten the load in times of desolation.
As my volunteer assignment end date approaches, I hope that I take home with me all of the things I have learned about the world. I carry so many people in my heart, some of whom passed away during our volunteer time. I hope they continue to inform my decisions and that I continue to live more intentionally. I hope we all find ways to explore the world and our fellow humans and see the blessings in our own life.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my remaining moments of massage to the patients, and assisting my placement at Hands of Hope, a project that has provided employment and more importantly, a community of support and friendship to those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Currently, thirty-two producers work in the project, by making handcrafted cards and gifts out of saa paper sustainably made from the mulberry tree here in Thailand. To buy items and learn more, please go to: www.handsofhopenongkhai.com.
Some simple plans I have include returning to volunteer at my local food pantry back home and to find ways to volunteer my time by massaging hospice patients. If you want to learn more about us and our experience, visit us at thefreunds.squarespace.com.
*John & Susan celebrated their last day on January 31st as volunteers. The patient with cryptococcal meningitis died within a week of their visit, surrounded by her family members.