Pattaya Mail turns 12

Vol. XIII No. 29
Friday July 22 - July 28, 2005

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Local Personalities

Dr. Alongkorn Chutinan - Neurosurgeon

by Dr. Iain Corness

One of the preferred health speakers at local meetings of expatriates is Dr. Alongkorn Chutinan, a neurosurgeon at the Bangkok Pattaya Hospital. He is a man who does practice what he preaches - a non-smoker who does not drink alcohol, and who exercises every day, eats healthy foods, but above all these, has found how to incorporate Buddhism into his daily stressful working life as a busy neurosurgeon. His calmness shines through, and is an example to us all.

He was born in Saraburi, north of Bangkok, to professional parents - his father an engineer, and his mother a school teacher. There were four children in the family, with three choosing engineering, and only the eldest boy, Alongkorn, heading towards the caring profession.

After his initial schooling at the local government school, the young Alongkorn moved to Bangkok to another government school there, but one where 80 percent of the alumni were doctors. By Grade IX, he was interested in becoming a doctor himself, finding great personal satisfaction in giving advice and being a confidante for people who needed help. By the time he had finished, he knew that medicine was his future and he enrolled at Chulalongkorn University.

He was 18 years old when he entered university for the six year slog that it takes to become a doctor. During that time, his 20 year old friends were being called up for the compulsory military service, but medical student Alongkorn Chutinan deferred until he had graduated. “I wanted to be in a medical platoon,” said Dr. Alongkorn, and his wish was granted, being given Lieutenant status, an army uniform and boots and a tent in the army camp in Korat. After six months he was transferred into the regional army’s military hospital, also in Korat, and work began for the young doctor in earnest.

By now he also knew that his future medical direction was surgery. “I didn’t like sitting down for hours, reading books. I was fascinated by operating rooms and surgery itself. You take more of a part in the treatment of the patient. It’s more hands on, and I found I could spend hours and hours in the OR without getting tired.”

He then continued on for a two year stint as a surgical intern, doing all the general surgical operations that all do as young doctors, with the removal of the appendix top of the list. Dr. Alongkorn has removed his fair share on the ladder of experience.

However, he found that general surgery was not satisfying enough. He had done a term in a neurosurgical ward as a final year student, and had found it interesting. Then he was called in to assist with an army sergeant who had been attacked by a man wielding an axe. It was a horrific injury, with brain tissue extruding from the fractured skull. Dr. Alongkorn intubated the victim and was present for the neurosurgeon’s operation. “A few days later the man was still alive and could talk. I thought it amazing!” This was the deciding point and he made the resolution that he would become a neurosurgeon, despite the fact that neurosurgery was not a popular choice for young medicos. “There’s so much study, long hours and night calls,” said Dr. Alongkorn, by way of explanation. “I also thought I would be of use to society as a neurosurgeon.”

To do this, he entered Siriraj Medical School, the oldest in Thailand, and studied under eminent professors there for the next four years. Neurosurgery is an exacting and meticulous form of surgery, which produces great pressure on the surgeon. He remembers one of his tutors saying, “If you screw up you can kill the patient. There’s no excuses here.” Dr. Alongkorn now adding, “There’s no room for error in neurosurgery. Everything has to be 100 percent. You are dealing with life and death.”

After receiving his neurosurgical qualifications he worked in the south of Thailand for two years and then went to Canada to further his studies, taking his Fellowship (advanced degree) in Toronto. “It was good experience. I learned the way the Western system worked, and its patient-doctor relationship.” He also learned that being Thai and looking much younger than his chronological age was not an advantage. “I looked too young and people would ask me just how many cases had I seen.” For interest, he is now in his 40’s, and to my eye looks 24 (although there are a couple of grey hairs creeping in, perhaps a sign of the stress he has to work under).

Returning to Thailand, he worked in the hospital in Nakhon Pathom for the next two and a half years, learning to abhor the Songkran festival, as much as any farang tired of getting wet, but for Dr. Alongkorn, Songkran meant having to operate all night as the injured were brought in.

His next appointment was here, in the Bangkok Pattaya Hospital, where he has been for two years. He wanted to be beside the beach, but also knew that he could not keep up the hectic pace in the understaffed government hospital system. Now he can have some time for his daily swim and occasional game of golf, while making sure he does not suffer from stress than could diminish his ability in the operating theatre.

So to Buddhism, something that has become an important part of his life. He visits the temple six to eight times a month, saying “You can get good advice from the monks, which you can then apply to your own life, and in your relationship with people. It helps calm you down and this makes me do my job better.”

He finished telling me about his experience with meditation. “Happiness is not from the exterior - it comes from your own inner peace.” I left Dr. Alongkorn’s consulting room feeling that here was one man truly striving to be at peace with himself. He is, and it shows. A remarkable young man.

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