by Dr. Phil McDaniel
Construction progressing on the “new” Kwai River Christian Hospital in Huay Malai, approximately 1983-1985. These photos were taken from the water tower of the mission compound.
“What if we built something ‘bambooish’ to start with?” I remember Dr. Lois Visscher saying something like this around 1982 during one of our discussions about the uncertain future of the Kwai River Christian Hospital.
The Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand was in the process of constructing a dam that would result in flooding of the valley of the Khwae Noi River (often called the Kwai River in English). Detailed surveying by EGAT had shown that the Kwai River Christian Hospital at its original site would be flooded out along with several villages. Time was running out for us. The reservoir would start filling in June, 1984. We had to decide whether to rebuild or close down.
Map of the Sangkhlaburi and Thongphaphum areas of western Thailand depicting roughly the area flooded by the reservoir that backed up behind the Vajiralongkorn Dam, also known as the Khao Laem Dam. The note at the bottom of the page about travel times by car or boat was true in 1984 but no longer apply. There is now a paved road all the way from south of the dam to the new town of Sangklaburi. That distance can be covered in about an hour.
By “bambooish”, Dr. Visscher meant a structure that used inexpensive, locally available building materials such as bamboo. Dr. Visscher had been a missionary in India for about 40 years before she aged out according to the rules of her mission board. She then came to help at the Kwai River Christian Hospital! She was used to economizing from her days in India.
But why rebuild the Kwai River Christian Hospital with cheap materials? It’s because some were asking, “Why rebuild the Kwai River Christian Hospital at all?” The KRCH had been in operation since 1963 (and had operated as a small clinic in a wooden shed for a year or two before that). In those twenty years of operation, the hospital had served thousands of patients, but there had been frequent problems staffing the hospital, especially with doctors and nurses. Twice the hospital had closed for lack of staff. Some said, “Maybe it would be better to just close the hospital, and eliminate these headaches!”
Another force dampening enthusiasm for building a new hospital, robust from end to end, was uncertainty as to whether the villagers would actually move to the relocation sites assigned to them: “What if the hospital moves to its assigned relocation site but the villagers don’t move to theirs? The hospital might end up serving a very sparse population.”
The Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand did provide some compensation for villagers and institutions. However, the compensation for the hospital was not sufficient to rebuild the hospital with all new robust materials from one end to the other. We decided to build one end of the hospital robust and the other end “bambooish”, with the intent of gradually upgrading the cheaply built end if the hospital was well utilized. The service and support area of the hospital (operating room, delivery room, x-ray, pharmacy, and central supply) was built robustly. This allowed medicines and equipment to be stored in locked rooms. The inpatient and outpatient areas of the hospital had a concrete floor but woven bamboo walls.
Woven bamboo walls divided examining rooms in the outpatient department.
The “new” hospital in Huay Malai turned out to be well utilized, serving two refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border as well as the villages near Huay Malai, the new town of Sangklaburi and points beyond. The “bambooish” end of the hospital was upgraded by degrees, until it began to look like a real hospital. At no time did patient care cease. It was available either at the old site or the new and for a brief time at both. To bring this about was a bit of a challenge as a major amount of construction material was being salvaged from the old hospital to use in the construction of the new. After the carpenters removed the roofing and support structures from half of the hospital at the old site, there was nothing to keep the rain from falling into the unroofed hallway and making its way to the part of the hospital which still had a roof. We had to chisel a small diversion channel so that the rainwater would run out the side of the hospital rather than continuing into the pharmacy and x-ray area.
The changing face of KRCH, Huay Malai
Over the years it has become more and more difficult to meet the building codes of the Ministry of Public Heath at the Huay Malai facility. The parts of the Huay Malai structure that were salvaged from the original (1963) building are now 55 years old. Construction is already underway for relocating the hospital once again. With financial assistance from Overbrook Hospital in Chiang Rai, USAID, and Church World Service, this new building will be up to date and ample in size. The building is going up in Sangklaburi Christian Center in the town of Sangklaburi, the transportation hub for the district of Sangklaburi.
Over the years a great deal of time, effort and money has gone into building, relocating, upgrading and remodeling. When the new building (at Sangklaburi Christian Center) is complete, the Kwai River Christian Hospital will be able to move into the largest and best equipped facility in its history. However, the most important asset of the hospital will still be its staff. My hope and prayer is that the doctors, nurses, aids, pharmacists, cashiers, and cleaners will always feel genuine compassion for the sick and suffering and that “Caring for the weakest on behalf of God Almighty” may be a daily practice, not just a motto.
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