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Phuket's Rotary district governor is a servant for change

PHUKET: For the past 11 months, Dr Sanguan Kunaporn has had to drastically cut back on his hours as a plastic surgeon at Phuket International Hospital.

By Steven Layne

Wednesday 4 June 2014, 03:54PM

It's not that business is down – Phuket's medical tourism industry is booming, as is demand for the expertise of a man like Dr Sanguan, one of the most renowned sexual reassignment specialists in Thailand and the world – but when he accepted a nomination to become one of Rotary Thailand's four district governors for a year (July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014), the dedicated Rotarian was under no illusions that the job would be easy.

“As a [full time] surgeon, I usually woke up at 6am, and would not come home to my family until real late. I often worked seven days a week,” he tells The Phuket News in an exclusive interview.

“Now I still wake up early, and sleep late. I'm just as busy as before. I don't have much time for relaxation, especially when travelling.”

But the main difference now, he notes, is that he has gotten to spend a lot more time with his family.

“Since Rotary emphasises the importance of family, Rotary Ann [a term commonly used in front of the name of a Rotarian's wife] Sinattarin accompanies me on all my trips around Thailand and to other countries as well.”

However, Dr Sanguan’s two kids – a 27-year-old son and 20-year-old-daughter – have already outgrown their nest and flown the coop.

“My son Tachapasit is a freelance photographer based in Bangkok, and my daughter Natchasiri is studying art near Montreal in Canada... My family has always been supportive.”

As district governor, Dr Sanguan oversees 23 provinces – from Kanchanaburi on the Thailand-Myanmar border, all the way down to Narathiwat in the Deep South.

Part of his job requires travelling to attend meetings of each club, which totaled 97 with 2,600 members when he started his tenure last July.

Dr Sanguan explained that the district's main objective for the past year has been to grow, develop and integrate its clubs through the implementation of a three-point strategy called ‘i-District’.

It comprises ICT – promoting the use of information and communication technology; Inter – inter-club, inter-province, inter-district and international integration, and ‘Ideals’ – emphasising Rotary's core values of ‘Integrity, Diversity, Easy friendly fellowships, Leadership and Service’.

Out of 530 Rotary Districts worldwide, the i-District strategy is unique to district 3330.

“One of the first things we did was to issue all of our members smart-card badges with microchips inside them. This is so we can start to record and track trends of our various members and clubs in a database over time.”

Another reason for developing the district's digital framework is to improve communications.

Rotary recently turned 109 years old and Dr Sanguan insists that the only way the organisation will survive is by appealing to the younger generation, the future leaders.

“For this, we need a strong digital framework. So we've been training our members, who are mostly people in their 50s and 60s, to be more familiar with social networking tools. This will help us to not only strengthen communication and ties among our own clubs' members and future members, but between and among members in other clubs, districts and related organisations, worldwide.”

He noted that his district has particularly strengthened ties this past year with clubs in Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Switzerland, Indonesia and Austria.

Dr Sanguan went onto highlight some of the other Rotary projects that he's led over the years.

He led a campaign in the northern part of the district, around Nakhon Pathom, Kanchaburi and Suphanburi – where many of the district's clubs are concentrated – to raise B500,000 to buy a rescue truck-ambulance for a NGO known as Mae Kor Nieao, based in the troubled Deep South province of Yala. The ambulance will be used to rescue victims of accidents, and atrocities in the ongoing insurgency.

Another project he takes pride in was leading the drive to collect more than 1 million CCs of blood for the Red Cross.

“The original goal was to raise one million and nine (1,000,009) CCs to mark Rotary's 109th birthday on Februay 23 [2014], but we exceeded this goal and got 1.3 million CCs.”


A founding member and former president of Phuket's Tongkah Rotary Club, Dr Sanguan has led a number of initiatives over the past 22 years that embody Rotary's ‘Ideals’.

These include donating high tech wheelchairs to 40 disabled persons in 2012; mobilising essential water supplies (almost 1 million bottles) for Central Thailand flood victims in 2011; and a number of community rebuilding and relief initiatives following the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami.

And he credits the success of such projects to the networks and resources of Rotary.

“When I first came to Phuket in the early 1990s, there was only one Rotary club – the Phuket Rotary Club.”

He recalls two peculiar patients he'd treated when working at Vachira hospital in 1992 – both accident cases, unrelated and occurring months apart. Both of the patients needed a plastic surgeon to reattach their limbs and Dr Sanguan was the most qualified man for the job.

“It's quite miraculous, two cases like this, only months apart. I've never seen another case like this in the 20 plus years since.”

Following the two successful operations, Dr Sanguan became the talk of town, and it wasn't long before Rotary Phuket invited him to speak at one of their meetings.

“That's when I really learned about Rotary and what they were doing for the community. I wanted to join, but you can only join a club by a unanimous invitation. For whatever reason, I didn't get an invitation.”

But some members of the Phuket club were ready to branch off and start a new club – Rotary Tongkah – of which Dr Sanguan would become a founding member. The rest is history, and today Phuket boasts the highest number of clubs in Thailand's South – seven.

In addition to Phuket and Tongkah clubs, other clubs include Andaman, Patong Beach, Junkseilon, Phuket South and Sino Phuket.

So what's next for Dr Sanguan? In little over a month, his tenure as District Governor will end, and a new replacement – Quanchai Laohaviraphab – will take the reins from July 1.

Having served as district governor, the path will open up for other opportunities in Rotary International.

“At this point, I can't say whether I'll continue up the [Rotary] ladder or not. Rotary leadership takes a lot of dedication, and the higher you go, the more dedicated you need to be. We'll just have to see.”

At that point, an important telephone call interrupted the interview. It was his wife reminding him that he needs to pack for a trip to Russia. For a Rotary meeting? Nope, for a lecture on cosmetic surgery.

“One out of every 500 boys has the potential to be transgender,” he says as a matter of fact. “Though not all transsexuals should go through with a sex change, those who are determined need to be given a proper psychological evaluation, and that's when I come in...”

Indeed, Dr Sanguan is in high demand – not only among sexual reassignment, general cosmetic or breast enhancement and reduction patients, who travel to Phuket from around the world, but also among medical and educational institutions who invite Dr Sanguan to lecture about a varying array of cosmetic surgery topics – in the US, Canada, Australia, India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and China.

An incessantly busy man, as soon as he returns from Russia, he'll wrap up his tenure as district governor by visiting all 97 clubs in the district, on top of going to Sydney for the Rotary International Convention, scheduled from June 1-4.

Despite all the time on the road, Dr Sanguan can't remember the last time he had a proper holiday, which begs the question, will he take one after July 1?

“Probably not any time soon. I've got a lot of work to do, and I love what I do.”

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