Project Thailand

The following blog comes from Nasir Uddin who spent a week at Warm Heart In December. It will be featured in http://warmheartworldwide.tumblr.com/.

I have been involved with Warm Heart since its early days in 2008-9 when I worked to help raise its profile at Rutgers University.  In fact my first collaboration with Michael was as a Rutgers undergrad when I helped to develop training curriculum through Global Pact (http://globalpact.org), an organization he founded to build an international network to take on the world’s problems, no less!  You could certainly say that Michael has personally been responsible for lighting a fire under many of us as we go out into the world and launch our working lives.

Warm Heart has a vision which is, unfortunately, fairly rare in today’s NGO world.  Most NGOs go into a community with a predefined solution without taking into consideration the true needs of the local residents and how to get them involved.  Warm Heart works hard to really assess how the solutions will impact different areas of the residents’ livelihood, not just on pushing through the project.  For that reason, I have become increasingly interested in understanding the organization and how I can help to support it.

After meeting Michael several times in the US in the intervening years after he shifted to Phrao and through regular emails, my goal has been to deepen the involvement between Warm Heart and my own NGO, em[POWER] Energy Group (http://empowerenergygroup.org/).  Em[POWER] was founded by students with different specialties from Rutgers and Princeton University five years ago.  It has been my ongoing passion as I continued my graduate schooling and began working full-time for companies who manufacture medical devices.

Em[POWER]’s mission is to find sustainable solutions through renewable resource-oriented development for waste-picking communities – people who sell waste for their livelihood – in usually remote areas of the developing world.  My particular area of focus has been the telemedicine project.  Telemedicine is defined by the World Health Organization as “the use of information and communications technology to deliver health care particularly in areas where access to medical services is insufficient”.  Over the past year, I have personally funded the software development for a simple and inexpensive solution to carry out preventive health tests to people living in remote areas.

That’s where my connection with Warm Heart comes in.  In each of our project sites – we recently expanded into Uganda, for example – we come across local problems and rely on our network of local and international experts and organizations for support in helping us roll-out, implement and fine-tune our different project solutions.  We also share similar problems so it’s good to brain storm and share stories.

Over the Christmas break this year, I finally had my first opportunity to come to Phrao for a short week-long visit.  There were two primary reasons for my trip:

1)      To bring a sustainable solution – the telemedicine project – to address health concerns faced by local communities at our project sites and to initiate implementation;

2)      To obtain deeper and first-hand understanding of Warm Heart and its projects with the end goal of creating a formal partnership between em[Power] and WH.

Warm Heart was facing a serious issue with thousands of residents in the Phrao District who suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes and who aren’t getting the proper care.  Local clinics – Mae Wan clinic where Warm Heart is located alone serves 6000 residents – are sorely understaffed and underfunded.  Nurses are unable to go from village to village and health workers are not trained to collect medical data.  It has been a real struggle for Warm Heart to collect the data so that those who are at high risk can get support.

Em[Power] volunteered to develop a cell phone and web software system integrated with medical devices such as a blood pressure measuring device.  In fact, it took over four years and the involvement of several successive volunteers to finally obtain permissions to pilot the telemedicine project.  Crucial to the viability of the solution was the fact that most of rural Thailand is covered by 3G internet networks.

The initial pilot project will be at Mae Wan clinic and cover blood pressure monitoring in the villages.  Later we hope to add other preventive tests such as blood glucose and ECG.  Hopefully with the data, we will then get permission for the clinic to send medicine to the patient, or provide transportation to the clinic or closest hospital.  Imagine how just the ability to collect a simple blood pressure reading can lead to someone living in a remote village being able to avoid disablement or death by hypertension.

Along with Michael and PJ, who served as translator, we were able to demonstrate the device at Mae Wan clinic and obtain permission for the pilot project.  The next step is getting six cell phones loaded with the app and six blood pressure monitoring systems to Phrao.  The first round of cell phones has been funded by donations and Warm Heart will be buying the first round of blood pressure devices.  Warm Heart will also provide the local health workers with the necessary training.

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Figure 1: Nasir and Michael explaining to the nurse (left) the cell phone and device use (right)

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 Figure 2: Nasir Uddin (r.) and Warm Heart president Michael Shafer (back), with approval team members of Mae Wan Clinic

I spent the rest of my week exploring all of Warm Heart’s projects in addition to reviewing the final paperwork and process for the telemedicine program and the formal partnership agreement.  The projects I was most interested in were the biochar renewable energy work that Michael is doing as well as its Fair Trade weaving and sewn products.

thailand_image3 Figure 3: Spent two days building this Biochar drying pit and this is the pit in action!

From the first morning after waking up in Phrao, I knew WH would be unlike any other place I have ever travelled to.  Michael Shafer has really taken his vision and all his years of experience and created a community which many people consider to be their home.  He and his wife Evelind are really immersed in the local community and practice what they  preach.

I am looking forward to seeing if the organization can become truly sustainable and if the local community can continue some of these projects without Warm Heart.  Likewise, I’m hoping the telemedicine public health project can expand throughout Phrao valley and even into the rest of Thailand.  The photo below shows me saying goodbye to Michael and Evelind but it’s also the hello to a lasting partnership with Warm Heart Worldwide.

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Figure 4: Nasir saying goodbye to Michael, Evelind, and some volunteers at the Chiang Mai airport

 For more information on both organizations, please visit the websites below.

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