Volunteer medic a light on Thai streets

SOPHIE SPEER
Last updated 05:00 16/11/2012
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Marko Cunningham, who volunteers medical services in Thailand.

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In 12 years of working as a volunteer ambulance officer in Bangkok, former Upper Hutt man Marko Cunningham has worked through the Boxing Day tsunami, three coups, two major protests and two floods.

That's on top of "lots of minor building collapses, and a million other everyday things like shootings, suicides, catching crocodiles and snakes".

Mr Cunningham worked as an electrician and property manager before moving to Thailand 12 years ago to teach science at a primary school in Bangkok.

While in Thailand he studied to become an emergency medical technician and completed a New Zealand paramedics course extramurally. Five years ago, he bought his own ambulance, making him the first volunteer to own and operate one in Thailand.

He clocks up about 60 hours of volunteer work each week on top of his fulltime teaching job, and most nights and weekends he can be found on the streets, helping the injured and ill.

He says the volunteer work is a big sacrifice on his personal life, because he can barely support himself financially. But while it's hard, it's a choice he is sticking with.

"I love getting in at the grassroots and taking action rather than writing reports about what should be done – no denying the value of that, but sometimes reports just stay as reports."

Last month he began working in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a country with no emergency management system, and that has provided his greatest professional challenge.

Mr Cunningham says he has found a sponsor for equipment needed and, with a group of volunteers, has been teaching first response to Myanmar's people – a vast change on the traditional ways patients were dealt with.

"They would put bleeding patients on a World War II-style stretcher and take them to hospital, which would not accept them if they didn't have money. In that case they would have to go across the border to Thailand, where the Thai Government hospital will accept them, or an NGO [non-governmental organisation] hospital."

If he can find a sponsor, he hopes to move to Myanmar permanently to continue his work. "I feel proud of myself and I do it because I feel how lucky I am in New Zealand. I have everything I ever wanted. To see desperately poor and persecuted people would make anyone want to help."

To find out more about Marko Cunningham's work, to get involved or donate, visit bkkfreeambulance.com

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- The Dominion Post

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