By The Nation
Like most other Thai children, Sivakon Mahasandana pulled a face at the taste when his mother fed him Thai herbs to relieve such minor ailments as colds and stomach upsets. Today the Grade 12 student at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, USA, has every reason to be thankful to those same Thai herbs as one of them – the exceedingly bitter Fah Talai Jone (Andrographis paniculata) – has mapped out the direction he will take as he begins his tertiary education.
Sivakon was in Grade 10 and swotting up for an important exam when he developed a nasty sore throat. He consulted a doctor, who prescribed a range of pills, but there was no improvement. He eventually called his mother back in Thailand and she told him to take the Fah Talai Jone she had slipped in his suitcase when he returned to the US.
The youngster went to bed early and when he woke up, his sore throat had gone and he passed the exam with flying colours.
Sivakon was so impressed by the curative powers of his native herb that he started reading about traditional Thai medicines and gave fah talai jone to his friends when they fell sick. He also consulted his Biology teacher, Adam DeDionisio, who suggested they conduct a study of the herb as part of class.
That led to a research project titled “Efficacy of fah talai jone on environmental contaminants introduced to agar samples”, which looked at how the drug can inhibit the growth of various bacteria in the States. To everyone’s surprise, it revealed that fah talai jone inhibited bacterial growth at various levels and regardless of the environment.
Determined to learn more about the herbs as well as other traditional medicines, Sivakon asked his parents to arrange a summer internship for him at the Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital in Prachin Buri.
The hospital is famous for its Thai traditional drugs and products and conducts research into Thai traditional medicine (TTM) in cooperation with Burapa University.
He also had a chance to stay at the dorm with the pharmacists, other Thai traditional doctors and medical students, and set out to learn as much as he could by helping both staff and students.
“Of course, being still at high school was a limitation but I wanted to seize the opportunity so I was always asking questions,” says the 18-year-old, adding that they not only answered all his questions but allowed him to assist the Thai traditional doctors, work in the Thai traditional dispensary, and took him through the production processes of a pharmaceutical factory. But what really opened his eyes was a visit to Dong Bang village where Abhaibhubejhr is working with residents in growing the plants vital to the herbal medicines.
“It’s all organic and the processes for harvesting the plants and transferring them into medicine must follow strict hygiene protocols, as these affect the quality of the medicine,” he says.
When a group of lecturers and students from the University of Miami came to visit the hospital, Sivakon was on hand to serve as interpreter. He also prepared presentations in English for foreign guests and helped out in the TTM clinic, explaining to patients how to take the herbs and weighing them in the dispensary.
“I was thrilled when I had the chance to follow up with a patient who came back after two weeks and I could see she had recovered,” says Sivakon, adding that to his mind TTC is an effective and cheaper alternative to conventional Western medicine for poorer patients.
“It’s a national treasure and one to which we should pay more attention because it benefits those who cannot afford modern medicines and healthcare,” he says.
An only child, Sivakon is grateful for the privileges from which he has benefitted and says that he really appreciates that his parents sent him to study in the US so that he could learn to stand on his own two feet.
“And as the only Thai in the school, I really wanted to present my country in the best possible light. That’s why I was so pleased at the results of our fah talai jone experiment,” he says,
“The month at Abhaibhubejhr hospital was the my best experience ever,” says the young man, adding that he intends to pursue undergraduate studies in Cell and Molecular Biology, which will give him a good grounding for a career in pharmacology and other related fields. He also hopes to return to the hospital whenever he comes back to Thailand for a holiday.
“I want to integrate Thai herbs with modern medicine and introduce the results so that it gains worldwide acceptance,” he says.