I’ve been a supporter of the Leprosy Mission (TLM) for something like 20 years and I’ve made an annual visit to family in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand each year since 2013.This year I made the connection and was able to visit the McKean Rehabilitation Center in Chiang Mai, one of TLM’s associates. Many thanks to TLM Australia for arranging my visit and to Ling for showing us round.
The centre is named for Dr James McKean (1860-1949), an American missionary. With his second wife, Laura Bell, he arrived in Chiang Mai in 1889 to join another American missionary. With a Thai assistant they set up a dispensary which became known as the American Hospital.
Helping those suffering from leprosy, then untreatable, was one priority. In 1905, Dr McKean gained the support of local dignitaries to create a home for lepers on Koh Klang, a river island off Chiang Mai. By 1908, there was an embryonic leprosarium, consisting of three cottages and six adults. Over the next twenty years, under the care of McKean and his team this fledging operation would grow dramatically.
A bio records:
… Dr McKean retired from the mission in Chiang Mai on March 10, 1931. At By the end of his career McKean had made substantial contributions to public health in Chiang Mail. He had helped to build up the American Hospital (and directed it for 24 years). He had also established a vaccine laboratory and the leprosy asylum, as well as 4 churches and over 45 leprosy villages. the leprosarium, there were more than 500 inhabitants, including 350 leprosy patients, in 143 buildings, including 116 cottages, 9 dormitories, a church, an impressive administration building, recreation center, a road for most of the island, a school, sewing factory, tool and furniture factory, and a form of self-government^.
After WW2 effective drug treatments for leprosy became available and it is now all but extinct in Thailand, though periodically cases are detected in those who have come from neighbouring countries. McKean continues to treat such cases.
By the early 1970s more than 5,000 patients had been treated in McKean, nearly 1,000 still living there. The emphasis shifted to making it possible for residents to return to their former homes. For some this is not possible, and McKean will be their permanent home. McKean extended its remit to supporting all disabled people both at the centre and through community outreach.
Our ninety minute tour took in the museum, cottages, the two churches, the outside of the 1993 hospital, hostels for those who cannot look after themselves and, of course, the beautiful grounds. All a great testament to James McKean and others who, inspired by their Christian faith, gave (and continue to give) their lives to serve others.