Living and dying beautifully
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Living and dying beautifully

Dr Mano Laohavanich's foundation highlights how words of comfort and compassion are the potent medicine often overlooked by today's medical profession

Living and dying beautifully
Dr Mano Laohavanich.

If it wasn't for Dr Mano Laohavanich's healing meditation expertise, Sombat Hataipiemsuk, a colon cancer survivor, would have fallen into a pit of depression after doctors told him that he had to live with a colostomy bag for the rest of his life. 

The former sales executive's life went into a tailspin after he was diagnosed with a type of cancer where he would need a colostomy, a surgical procedure that brings one end of the large intestine out through an opening (stoma) made in the abdominal wall. Stools draining through the intestine pass through the stoma into a bag attached to the patient's abdomen.

The 59-year-old's biggest fear was that the disposable colostomy bag, attached not too far from his belly button, would burst when he least expected it.

"Being a salesman for most of my life, I was very cautious of my appearance, so carrying this bag around was very depressing to say the least," said Sombat.

To get his mind off the situation, Sombat began to counsel other patients who had undergone colostomy. However, his own emotional state of mind began to deteriorate when some of the patients he met began to die. Then he was introduced to Dr Mano, founder of Kalyanakarun Palliative Care Thailand Foundation, which offers courses for volunteers to become healthcare supporters.

"Among the many things taught here is healing meditation, which personally helped me develop a more positive attitude towards my predicament," he said. 

Today Sombat is a proud volunteer at the Kalyanakarun Palliative Care Thailand Foundation. Dr Mano has become his spiritual adviser and taught him meditation to address the root cause of his worries. He claims he has seen miracles happen in the lives of members that attend the healing meditation sessions. 

Dr Mano, who apart from managing Kalyanakarun Palliative Care Thailand Foundation, is lecturer at Chulabhorn International College of Medicine, Thammasat University, said his volunteers come from all walks of life.

They can expect to learn an array of topics, ranging from pain management, gastrointestinal issues, bereavement management to more. Palliative care here focuses on a culture of caring with compassion which draws its roots from Buddhism. Set up three years ago, he said the inspiration behind the foundation originally came from his philosophy in life that it is beautiful and should be celebrated.

"Kalyanakarun, which roughly translates as 'beautiful compassion', came into existence because of my personal experiences and knowledge as a medical doctor and meditation teacher.

"My years of experience in helping patients through meditation and my interpretation of Buddhism led me to help others by setting up this foundation," he said.  

Another factor that played a deciding role in Dr Mano's decision to set up the foundation was his belief that community empowerment is the basis of proper health care and civil society.

"My version for palliative care is different from the conventional ones started in the West," he said. "For me, palliative care begins with the concern and anxiety of the patient when they are told by the doctor that they are suffering from a serious illness. Usually oncologists refer their patients to see me. Cases that brought to my attention are referred to me by medical doctors, and then I connect them with the right support group. Meditation classes are open to both patients and the public."

The former monk, who conducts meditation classes regularly at Thammasat University, said palliative care is an intrinsic part of medical care often overlooked by medical personnel. Doctors and nurses customarily think that only drugs, surgery and radiation are the real treatment, he said, but his opinion is to the contrary. He believes that holistic care is the answer to addressing illness at its root case, of course with a good portion of empathy towards the patient's needs. Words of comfort are a potent medicine forgotten by today's medical profession.

Candidates for the healthcare volunteer training classes are expected to pass an interview by a team of specialists, which include among others medical to holistic experts, who are also members of the foundation and focus on patient-centred service.     

What impressed Sombat most about the foundation's philosophy was the fact that palliative care should start in the initial stages of a person's illness, not when he is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

"Volunteers act as a support group as soon as the patient is diagnosed with a serious illness," Sombat added.

"We befriend and offer counselling. During the course of our training we are taught by medical and holistic specialists on how to address the needs of both the patient and the caregiver. Even after the patient dies, we continue to visit their families during the bereavement period. Many long-lasting friendships are formed during this time."

Dr Issarang Nuchprayoon, who is a medical trainer for the foundation's volunteers and has utilised their services for his patients, said Dr Mano's vision for palliative care in Thailand is just the right balance between the medical and spiritual attention a patient requires.    

Sharing one of many cases referred to Dr Mano was that of an anencephalic child named Nong Namo, who was born with only a partial brain. Expected to live for no longer than a couple of weeks, the boy's parents were advised by the doctors to take him home because there was not much the hospital could do to improve his condition. 

"The child had an infection in the brain and for six months was on antibiotics," remarked Dr Issarang. "The single mother, who had left her job as a hotel maid to care for her son, was the only caregiver, so I asked Dr Mano if he could help by sending his team of healthcare volunteers to visit the mother who lives in the Northeast. "As these volunteers form a network of caregivers who are trained in five specific areas -- healing meditation, nursing care, social welfare and more -- they played a pivotal role in helping the mother to realise she was not alone. They gave her the community support and friendship she needed to cope with the stressful situation she was in."

Having trained hundreds of volunteers so far, Dr Mano said the most memorable one was that of late volunteer Nonglaskna Chatchaivej, who took care of Nong Namo.

"I suppose she was the most impressive volunteer we had so far because despite being a terminally ill cancer patient herself, she befriended and supported the family of Nong Namo. As a volunteer, she realised the beauty of life. As humans we are interconnected and need each other's support.'' 

Dr Mano hopes to share his experience and that of his foundation members at the Second Intensive Palliative Care Training for Asean, which is to be held on Nov 9-22 at Asia Airport Hotel near Don Mueang airport.

"I believe that the upcoming Intensive Palliative Care training for Asean countries will be a major step in public health care, especially in the Mekong Region that shares our Theravada Buddhism principles."


Dr Mano conducts meditation classes for both patients and the public alike to address physical and emotional problems. 

Dr Issarang, left, during a home visit to meet his patient Nong Namo with volunteers.

A meditation class for volunteers.

Volunteers are happy to help out in any way possible. Here they give a leg massage to a house-bound patient. 

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