Carmel Valley resident helps bring medical care, education to one of the world’s poorest nations

Cyril Thomas (in the red shirt) and Rick Astone, a physical therapist, in Myanmar

By Marlena Chavira-Medford
Staff Writer

Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand is Myanmar, one of the poorest nations in the world with a population that’s facing a staggering health crisis: About 40 percent have tuberculosis; about 360,000 are infected with HIV/AIDS; and almost half of all malaria cases can be traced back to this southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma.

The people here are further crippled by an oppressive military regime, which has snuffed out efforts to fight these diseases. The situation is worsened even more by the country’s lack of accessible healthcare. It’s not uncommon for villagers in the remote mountains to travel 500 miles on foot and bus to reach the nearest clinic, a trip that can take weeks.

“Imagine being in Montana and having to go to Seattle to see a doctor,” said local physician assistant Cyril Thomas, who recently spent a week teaching lifesaving skills to some of these villagers during a medical mission trip through the Frontier Labourers of Christ’s Barefoot Doctors program. Thomas has spent about 20 years volunteering for medical mission trips to dozens of nations all over the world. This most recent trip, however, was the first time he had the opportunity to teach skills, rather than perform procedures.

“By providing the Barefoot Doctors the knowledge to take care of their own people, it became clearer to me that they can prevent disease, cure some of them, refer them to proper local clinics and save life beyond our wildest dream,” he said of the program, which was hosted in Thailand, but included many villagers from Myanmar. “Knowledge is the gift that keeps on giving.”

That knowledge will be especially critical now in Myanmar as its people deal with the fallout from two deadly natural disasters this month: a deadly storm that killed hundreds of fisherman off the coast, and a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the town of Tachileik, killing and injuring hundreds more. All of this all comes just a few years after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which had an official death toll of 22,500, but some reports have estimated that number to be closer to 100,000. An exact number is difficult to know because births and deaths are not always recorded, and the military control makes it difficult for outside sources to get accurate information. Though it was the worst natural disaster recorded in Myanmar’s history, Thomas pointed out that Myanmar did not receive nearly as much global response as other recent natural disasters. For example, about $528 million was raised in two weeks when the Haiti earthquake hit — but only $91.3 million was raised in 21 months after Cyclone Nargis.

“By continuing our education program, we will make a greater impact that will last beyond the disaster,” Thomas said, adding that in places like Myanmar, dire need exists on a regular basis, not just when natural disasters strike. According to data from the United Nations, more than 28,000 children younger than 5 die every day from treatable illnesses such as diarrhea, respiratory infection, malaria and AIDS. That’s approximately 1,200 deaths per hour. By comparison, Thomas points out that the 2004 tsunamis along the Indian Ocean coastline killed about 300,000 people. That means in the poorest areas of the world, it’s the same as having three tsumanis per month, every month.

“Some people live a tsunami every month,” he said. “You can tell people the story, but there’s nothing like getting your hands dirty and looking these people in the eyes and suddenly thinking ‘Oh God, this is real.’

Looking those people in the eyes, Thomas added, is a strong teaching moment — and it’s precisely why he’s brought his two children with him on some of his medical mission trips. It’s a family tradition started by his father, who worked to rehabilitate inmates in Madagascar, where Thomas was raised. In Madagascar, corrupt prison guards would let some inmates out at night so they could commit crimes, and then allow them to sneak back into prison by sunrise. His father’s work to rehabilitate these inmates often put him in danger and, tragically, it ultimately led to his death. When Thomas was 2, his father was gunned down in their home. His mother, who was pregnant with his younger brother, was also shot. Though she and the baby survived, his brother was born handicapped.

“I think a lot of healing needed to happen, and this has helped me find that,” Thomas said of his medical mission work. “During one of my trips to Haiti I read something on a wall that’s stuck with me: ‘You have to live for nothing and die for something.’ I’ve come to realize the truth in that.

“When you reach out and help those in great need, you become a better person. It’s a fact of life.”

If you would like to contribute toward the Barefoot Doctors program, or want more information, please contact Cyril Thomas at Also visit and

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Posted by Marlena Chavira-Medford on Apr 19, 2011. Filed under Carmel Valley, Featured Story, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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