Unfazed by rising costs, philanthropist vows to continue running free clinic

Surat wongcharnsil, left, helps patients register, in addition to interviewing them and taking their pulse.

Surat Wongcharnsil, 53, has operated the Surat Medical Polyclinic on Khao San Road, a predominantly tourist area of Bangkok, for nearly five years, spending up to Bt150,000 (S$5,970.57) on the salaries of the resident doctors and staff. The free clinic treats both poor people and those who are able to pay, in addition to foreign tourists frequenting the area and illegal migrant workers.

In the near future, free traditional massage for people having nerve-related problems, paralyses or pareses of any kind will be available as rehabilitation treatment. This service, once ready, will be provided by a number of doctors and professional practitioners, which would cost the clinic another Bt80,000 in monthly cost for 20 patients a day.

The ground floor of the clinic will be soon expanded, to accomm-odate more patients, on top of the daily average of 40, and part of it will be made into a library where Dhamma books will be provided. A meditation centre will be opened for those interested, he added.

He said the medicines prescribed by his clinic cost him Bt80,000 a month, and the figure would soon rise to Bt100,000 because he only wanted quality medicines to be prescribed to patients. "If only cheap medicines are prescribed to them, they will return for extended treatments anyway," he explained.

Surat said he was inspired by a "Bt5 Clinic" operated Dr Sapha Limphanichkarn in the Rama V Road area, which charges all patients only Bt5, irrespective of the cost of treatment. Surat said he opened the clinic to honour a vow he made when his mother was seriously ill a few years ago.

"I pleaded for my mother's recovery at the time, and made a vow to give free medical treatment for the rest of my life in exchange for that, and two days later, my mum recovered, and returned to normalcy immediately," he said.

"She lived for another three years, before passing away at 82. I want to continue operating my free clinic until the rest of my life if my wife and my children approve of this decision of mine in the long term," said Surat.

He said many people thought that he was running the free clinic to seek popularity and enter politics in the near future. Even close friends kept asking him: "Why the hell are you doing this?"

"I have done it for the mere sake of fulfilment of my happiness achieved through giving, especially giving to those in need, in addition to keeping my vow for my mother's health," he added.

Surat's earnings come from a leather export business, rents from a resort in Phetchaburi, and also from his eight apartments in Bangkok, along with leases from shophouses in the Khao San area. He said he could absorb the expenditure on the clinic.

Surat Medical Polyclinic has 35,000 patients in its registration, making up 60 per cent of all patients who are mostly Thais, while the remaining 40 per cent are foreign tourists and migrant workers and hilltribe people who are both legal and illegal. There are 10 part-time resident doctors and two nurses on daily duty.

The polyclinic, located on Ram Butree Road across from Wat Chana Songkhram, is open from 5pm to 9pm on weekdays and from 9am to 1pm at the weekend. It is closed every Wednesday and on public holidays.

Dr Bancha Rojwimolkarn, a resident doctor, said he was proud to work at this free clinic, and that the medical service here was of the same or higher quality than the Bt30 universal healthcare, because of good medication and high-cost treatment, without patients having to undergo observatory periods like elsewhere. "Even patients who can afford good treatment come here, and pay, because they are impressed with the efficient services here," he added.

A male nurse, Thitinant Udomphol, said Surat kept telling the staff to treat patients as if they were their relatives, and the staff had treated all patients equally, irrespective of how they dressed or whatever their social status. "I feel good working here. It's to me like making additional merit, working in this profession," he said.

Suphachai Wongphinij, the other male nurse, said he could have earned more elsewhere, but he chose to work at this clinic because it made him proud.

A dressmaker, Sawang Kaewkhontho, said the clinic's odd working hours are good for people like her who work all day.

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