From Bronte to Burma: doing it for the kids
EXPAT FACTOR | When Australian nurse Kanchana Thornton left Sydney in 2001 to work at a clinic on the Thai Burma border, she never imagined that over ten years later she would still be there, having founded the Burma Children Medical Fund.
Kanchana Thornton founded the Burma Children Medical Fund (BCMF), an organisation that provides the costs for medical treatment for some of the most vulnerable children who cross the Thai Burma border to seek help.
Born in Bangkok, Kanchana moved at the age of 14 to live with her aunt and cousins in Sydney. Despite not speaking English in her first few months, she quickly picked it up and thrived in the environment of a multicultural high school in the west of the city, going on to study nursing at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).
After some time training at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, her time at Australia and New Zealand’s busiest A&E department at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) for three years was where she found that her true passion lay in maternal and child health: an interest that led to a postgraduate qualification in Child and Family Health, again from UTS.
She recalls one particular case in the department at RPA:
“There was a Thai mother who came into the A&E while on holiday in Sydney. She was able to pay a small fee for medication for her son who was suffering from asthma. That was a case that stuck with me as it made me realise how lucky Australians are to have universal healthcare and made me wonder about what happened to those who can’t afford healthcare for their children in other countries.”
The holiday of a lifetime that became a life’s work
A holiday to Thailand and visit to the town of Mae Sot on the Thai Burma border in the year 2000 introduced Kanchana to the work of the Mae Tao clinic, a small village of houses offering healthcare services to Thai and Burmese adults and children.
Kanchana and her husband Phil, an author and journalist, were so touched by their trip to the clinic, they decided to leave their comfortable beachside life in Sydney in 2001 for Kanchana to undertake a year’s placement at the now famous healthcare facility working under the Australian Volunteer International programme.
Despite vowing to only stay for a year, Kanchana and Phil still live in the town over 13 years later; a decision that was cemented by Kanchana’s decision to set up the Burma Children Medical Fund in 2006, a small charity which funds medical treatment and support services for Burmese migrant children on the Thai Burma border who suffer from conditions that are not able to be treated at local clinics or hospitals.
“I was working in the children’s outpatient clinic and came across so many cases where children from Burma could not get the help they needed because of the complexities of their conditions.
“The Mae Tao clinic is a fantastic resource for the area but cannot act as a fully functioning hospital.
“It was then when I decided to look into the possibility of transferring children to Chiang Mai Hospital, a much larger and better equipped hospital four hours drive north of Mae Sot.”
The drive for life
After much negotiation with the hospital and Thai authorities, Kanchana was able to help six patients in 2006 by hiring an ambulance to drive the children to Chiang Mai and raising the funds not only for their medical expenses but also for food and accommodation costs for their family.
Today, BCMF has helped over 1,300 patients receive treatment at Chiang Mai hospital with illnesses ranging from cardiac disease to benign tumours. Children are assessed at the Mae Tao clinic before it is decided whether BCMF has the available resources to help with their treatment.
The drive for funding
Funding for BCMF comes from a range of sources including Union Aid Abroad – Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA), the overseas humanitarian aid agency of the Australia Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) which allows tax deductible donations to be made to the charity from Australia.
In the UK, BCMF is supported by Thai Children’s Trust, a charity which supports projects in Thailand that help children at risk, children with HIV/Aids, children with disabilities and refugees – providing a home, an education and a future for some 4,000 young people.
Despite the impressive statistics on how many children have been helped so far, Kanchana knows that there is still work to be done.
“The demand always outweighs supply and we expect that this demand will only increase with the opening of the ASEAN borders in 2015, making it easier for families from Burma to travel into Thailand.
We always want to help every child that comes to us but it is increasingly difficult.”
Despite this prognosis, Kanchana is positive about the future and hopes to continue growing BCMF with the help of the funding that she relies so heavily upon.
“It is said so often by charities but we really couldn’t do our work without donor support and we hope to continue receiving this generosity to allow us to help more families afford the treatment their children so desperately need.”
For more information about Burma Children’s Medical Fund visit: BurmaChildren.com
To make a donation through Thai Children’s Trust visit: ThaiChildrensTrust.org.uk