New Stanford graduate is empowering people with disabilities in Thailand

New Stanford graduate Oranicha “Natty” Jumreornvong moved across the world to learn more about how to improve the lives of people with disabilities at home in Thailand. Next year she'll attend medical school and hopes to apply what she learns to help people back home.

Disability significantly affected the lives of many of Oranicha “Natty” Jumreornvong’s loved ones, but the topic was rarely discussed. That’s because Jumreornvong, who graduates this week, is from Thailand, where a religious stigma hangs heavy over these health issues.

Natty Jumreornvong meets with her adviser, Professor Don Barr

Natty Jumreornvong meets with her adviser, Professor Don Barr, to submit her honors thesis. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Nearly everyone in Thailand is Buddhist, and there is a popular belief in Buddhism that if a person is born with disability, it means they’ve committed sins in their past life,” Jumreornvong explained.

After years of studying how cultural perceptions affect opportunities and medical care for people with disabilities in Thailand, Jumreornvong has become an advocate for this community, even working as a policy adviser for the country’s forthcoming Disability Empowerment Act (DEA), landmark legislation concerning the rights of people with disabilities.

As a first-quarter second-year student at Stanford, Jumreornvong got accepted to the FlexMed program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, which grants early admission to students who show exceptional self-direction and a passion for human rights and social justice. In medical school and beyond, she intends to keep working toward improving the lives of people with disabilities through research, policy and business.

Disability is seen – and ignored – in Thailand

Misconceptions about physical and mental health problems are complicated in Thailand, said Jumreornvong, to the extent that people dealing with these issues are much more likely to consult with fortune tellers – a trade in which she dabbled as a high schooler – than therapists. In some rural areas, spiritual solutions, which often reflect cultural stigma and misunderstanding, are the only options for care. One family Jumreornvong worked with in Thailand through Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education at Stanford (HOPES) had a child with Huntington’s disease who was repeatedly beaten by a shaman, a common practice when illnesses are blamed on possession.

Another challenge for people with disabilities in Thailand is that the infrastructure-based accommodations that exist for them, such as ramps to public transportation, come from charitable efforts rather than legal obligation. Jumreornvong has seen the flaws of this approach through the experiences of her grandmother, who was a head cook until a complication in her spinal surgery left her disabled.

Jumreornvong became involved with the DEA through previous work with the Father Ray Foundation, an NGO that cares for orphaned, abused and disadvantaged children and students with disabilities, and Siam Nissin, a social enterprise run by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. This legislation could give people with disabilities, like her grandmother, stronger protections against discrimination and rights that require all public facilities to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Using technology to improve lives

When Jumreornvong was a teenager, she became close friends with a girl with disabilities in Chiang Rai, a province in northern Thailand. Years later, her friend died during childbirth. She had been given the wrong medication, the result of a medical record mixup.

“In rural areas of Thailand, there are usually only paper records,” said Jumreornvong. “With monsoons that damage the paper records and the many different languages used by the villagers, it’s hard for doctors to read medical records.”

Inspired by this tragedy, Jumreornvong co-founded a social enterprise, QRist, which developed a web application that matches electronic medical records to patients through fingerprint scans. As a test run, 20 mobile clinics serving over 5,000 patients with chronic disabilities and spinal injuries in Thailand are using this application. QRist has now been given to Mae Lao Hospital, a public hospital funded by the Thai government in northern Thailand, for further development.

Getting to know people with mental and physical health issues while also taking part in the business side of the health industry has deepened Jumreornvong’s perspective on possible solutions to inadequate care and long-standing stigma.

“Many of the challenges people with disabilities face are rooted in culture and lack of information. We need to distribute knowledge and work together rather than antagonize the different stakeholders,” she said.

Shuttling back and forth between Stanford and Thailand, she has encouraged other health care students from both sides of the world to join her cause. Over spring break, she presented to STEM students at the Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, in Bangkok, encouraging them to partner with local disability organizations to develop assistive technologies that would allow people with disabilities to take part in STEM fields. She also convinced a couple Stanford classmates who accompanied her on this trip to take a gap year in Thailand, during which they’ll work on facilitating employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for people with disabilities, a project that is an extension of Jumreornvong’s honors thesis.

Cultural transition

In the beginning, Jumreornvong’s parents didn’t support her choice to attend Stanford and, initially, she was strongly motivated by a desire to prove her parents wrong.

“My parents didn’t want me to come here,” she explained. “They were concerned that the academic challenges of Stanford and cultural differences between Thailand and the U.S. would be too much for a daughter. Looking back, I understand that their disagreement with my academic choices was out of love.”

Their biases fell away in light of Jumreornvong’s successes and so did her defiant drive, but her passion for health care and human rights flourished. Her interest in both of these subjects, along with a desire to experience other areas of research and industry, drove Jumreornvong to apply to the FlexMed program.

“Given the cultural transition she went through, to apply to this program as a first-quarter sophomore is incredible,” said Jumreornvong’s Stanford mentor Donald Barr, professor (teaching) of pediatrics.

Now, connections she has in academia in Thailand are encouraging her to stay in the U.S. because they believe she can do so much more good for her country from America.

On to medical school

Although Jumreornvong said she’s narrowed down her interests, she still plans to blend a career in health care with business, technology and international policy.

“Knowing me, I’m probably going to change my mind 10 times regarding what I’m going to do with my life,” said Jumreornvong. “But I know I want to be able to combine different skill sets – policy, research and business strategy – to create impact on a global scale.”

Barr hopes she will inspire others like her, who are in the midst of cultural transition, are uncertain about exactly where their passions lie or are working toward novel, ambitious global change. From Barr’s perspective, Jumreornvong exemplifies how a broader, more accommodating path to medical school can pay off. He said he believes that truly great physicians need more than a foundation of science; that, ideally, they are also well versed in empathy, communication, compassion and judgment.

“It has been very valuable to me to watch her come into her own, and it revalidates the energy and support I provide to other students,” said Barr. “We are in a relay and she will keep the baton with her and when she has the opportunity to pass it on to someone else, in a mentoring, support or teaching capacity, she’ll then pass it on to them.”