A Norwegian wheelchair user goes to Thailand and starts walking again. It almost sounds too good to be true. But according to Roar Sandberg, who is the daily leader of the Norwegian rehabilitation center Baan Sabaijai, it is a recurring happening at their facility and as he explains there is no miracles involved. Just a simple and good idea.
Baan Sabaijai is a privately owned rehabilitation center for Norwegian citizens in the That Phanom region of Northeast Thailand only a stone throw away from the Mekong River and Laos. Currently eight people are living permanently at the center each with different rehabilitation needs. Roar Sandberg oversees the daily operation of the center together with his wife Phatnicha. Four the past four years they have also been partners in the business. Roar came to know about the center by coincidence when he found out that his old friend from Norway, Oscar Jørgensen had started a rehabilitation center in Thailand. The project interested him so he went to see the rehabilitation center for himself.
What especially had Roar sold about the idea was the progress he saw the patients undergo during their rehabilitation program.
“We have examples of patients who had been sitting in a wheelchair in Norway for three to five years but two months after they have come down to us here in Thailand the wheelchair has been parked in a corner,” Roar says.
According to Roar, the positive results is especially a result of the climate in Thailand and the facilities that are at hand at the center.
“The heat of Thailand has a healing effect, and it makes it possible for us to do rehabilitation exercises in our pool. This is without a question some of the most effective training because once you’re in water all your muscles are active. We have had many people suffering from a stroke who have pointed out to us how much this helped them,” Roar explains.
Seeing the progress of the patients is the great motivator for Roar and what inspires him about the job.
“What makes this job so exciting and meaningful is that you can see a Norwegian come here, he is sitting in a wheelchair, he is depressed about his situation but after a couple months they become invigorated because they see how they are slowly becoming more independent of the intensive care. And that is very inspiring,” Roar tells.
Rehabilitation in Norway
Roar who has some experience from working with disabled people in Norway knows that the rehabilitation system there is fallible in some ways. He explains that there are structural problems that prevents patients from getting the optimal results.
“If you live in Norway and need physiotherapy the state will maybe provide you with one hour a week. The politicians are continuously cutting down in the healthcare sector and it shows,” Roar says and goes on to give an example.
“We have a patient who was involved in severe injury in Norway. When he lived in Drammen in Norway, he was in a wheelchair and had a constant need for assistance and physiotherapy but the last year before he moved to Baan Sabaijai he only got help two times a month. He was just sitting on his own and so does a lot of other people,” Roar explain
But the problem isn’t just related to the resources that gets allocated for rehabilitating. The climate and geography of Norway is also having a negative effect on some patient’s progress.
“If you got arthritis and you are just sitting inside half the year because it’s so cold it’s really not good for your condition,” Roar says.
Taking these things into consideration it seems that there are good incentives for the Norwegian state to support an initiative like Baan Sabaijai. The center has also tried to negotiate for a deal allowing the patients of the Norwegian state to transfer their case and subsequent social benefits to be paid out in Thailand. However, most municipalities in Norway are saying no this arrangement.
“Initially when Baan Sabaijai was established, the municipalities would cooperate with Baan Sabaijai. But about ten years ago they stopped this cooperation. We have talked to individual social workers who say that they find a cooperation a good idea, but that their hands are tied,” Roar explains.
According to Roar, the municipalities have given no explanation as to why they oppose working together. They have tried to argue the upsides of rehabilitating people abroad but to no avail.
“We have showed them our calculation of how much they can save by having their citizens’ rehabilitation done in Thailand. In Norway an average rehabilitation patient will cost the municipality 650.000 NKR a year. Here in Thailand we could do it for a fraction of that,”
Today each person that lives in Ban Sabaijai are paying for their stay out of their own private pension. The lack of state supplement has forced Ban Sabaijai to open up a resort for leisure purposes in addition to the rehabilitation center. The income made from the resort helps pay for the daily operation and administration of the center.