Dr Sanga Dorji

Lighting candles

Lighting candles

Dr Sanga Dorji, Chief Physiotherapist, JDWNR Hospital, on 3 December 2009, at Hotel Taj addressing his guests who had come together to celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities:

Honorable Tshogpon, Honorable Lyonpos, Honorable leader of the Opposition, Honorable Thrizin of the National Council, Honorable members of the Parliament, Representatives of the International Organizations, Dashos, Leaders of the Business communities, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen …

Dr Sanga’s introductory words were ordinary – this, in fact, is how almost every speech for almost every official occasion in Thimphu begins. But he said it with passion, and great satisfaction.  For him, every one of those words was profound. The words meant that he and the growing community of people with disabilities had come a long way in the twelve months since they celebrated International Day for Persons with Disabilities in 2008.

During the celebrations last year, the Government was noticeably absent. But this year’s event was well attended. Ministers, civil servants, parliamentarians, private businesses, NGOs and international organisations had turned up in full force to celebrate the lives of people with disabilities.

This week’s banner celebrates people with disabilities. It features our special people showing of their abilities, from embroidery and cakes by Draktsho to demonstrations and lessons on how the blind and the deaf communicate.

Now back to Dr Sanga. Many of us wondered if he’d ever get married. He did, in 2008, after completing a master’s degree in Rehab Medicine. Dr Sanga is a loving husband and a proud father of a four-month old daughter. He is also an accomplished professional.

I interviewed Dr Sanga recently.

Dr Sanga, please me a little about yourself.

Well … I grew up in Bemji, my village in Trongsa. When I was six years old I remember helping my parents in our farm and looking after our cattle. I had no problems with my vision, and like all other boys was enjoying life in Bemji. Those days most parents didn’t send their children to school, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to leave my home for a long time.

But when I turned eight, I started losing my sight, and in a matter of six months I became completely blind. I was confused and in shock. When I turned ten, my mother bought me to Thimphu Hospital to see if I could be cured.

The doctors in Thimphu told me that I had become blind because I did not have enough Vitamin A. They also told me that I would never regain my sight. Dr Samdrup, who was the Superintendent of the hospital then, reported my case to HRH Prince Namgyel Wangchuck who sent me to the Blind School in Khaling.

So, actually, I would not have attended school if I did not become blind! In many ways becoming blind was a blessing in disguise. Of course, there are many disadvantages in being blind, but then, a lot of good has come out of it too.

You are Bhutan’s foremost physiotherapist. How did you choose this profession?

By the time I reached Class 6, I started thinking about a career. I may have been blind, but I was wanted to become a professional and to be independent. So I asked my principal, Mr Philip Holmberg, what blind people did in the West. He told me that the three most successful careers for blind people were lawyers, professors and physiotherapists. I immediately knew what I wanted to become. You see, as a child, I used to suffer from frequent toothaches, and I had to go to the hospital a lot. So, at quite an early age, I wanted to work in a hospital, and I realized that physiotherapy would allow me to do just that.

I studied till Class 8 in the Blind School. Then I studied for two years in Khaling High School. After that I worked in the Department of Education, mostly attending to telephone calls. I would also go to the hospital to observe the physiotherapist, a Burmese doctor, at work.

In 1989, I got a scholarship from the Royal Government to study in London. I studied for two years, and then trained as a physiotherapist for four years.

As Bhutan’s first physiotherapist, did you build the whole programme yourself?

In some ways, I suppose I did. But I also got a lot of support from my colleagues, especially from physio-technicians, some of who were very helpful. Also, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup was the health minister at that time. Lyonpo Sangay gave me a lot of practical support, and was very helpful in expanding the physiotherapy services to the districts.

Are you happy with your work?

Oh, I’m very happy. I find my work enjoyable. I mainly do clinical work, but I also teach regularly. And, since I am the head of the physiotherapy department, I have to do some management work too.

I meet a lot of people in my line of work. And I enjoy that. I get to meet people from different professions and different backgrounds. And, when you interact with them you get to know the good things in their lives, but also their personal difficulties.

Who are your role models?

I have many role models. But, as a visually impaired person, the person who has inspired me the most, and who I look up to is Helen Keller. Although Helen Keller was born with multi-disabilities (she was blind, deaf and dumb) she received an education and succeeded in life. She authored many books that have inspired countless people, especially people with disabilities.

Helen Keller has given us many proverbs. I enjoy them a lot. My favourite proverb is “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”. I agree with that completely. Cursing the dark will give us no light. But lighting a candle will surely provide us an alternative.

I hear you like to trek. Tell me how you trek, with whom, where and how often.

Yes, I love trekking. I trek with a good group of friends including doctors, physio-technicians and civil servants. I coordinate the treks. We generally do about two treks a year, one in the spring and one in the autumn.

Of course, I need a “sighted guide” to lend me an elbow. I just follow the guide and my friends.

I enjoy being in the forests, and in our mountains. I love to sit by the bon fire, free of all other noises in the wild. I feel at peace and enjoy the freshness in the mountains.

My most adventurous trek was the pilgrimage to Singye Dzong in 2004. We walked for three days to get there, and three days to get back. We camped for five days in Singye Dzong visiting all the sacred sites.

My favourite trek is to Dagala. It’s not too tough and there are plenty of lovely lakes. I went in October, so the weather was perfect at that time.

What are your other interests?

I enjoy listening to every thing – radio, TV, cassette player and the like. Mostly, I listen to news and current affairs. I also listen to stories.

What do you think about support for people with disabilities in Bhutan?

Things have improved, but a lot more needs to be done. Infrastructure and services have to be made more accessible, especially for people in wheel chairs.

We had to have the International Day for People with Disabilities in Hotel Taj. It was expensive, but it is the only hotel that was accessible for people in wheel chairs. We explored many hotels, but they were either too small or were not accessible for wheel chairs.

Our hotels as business must look into it, not just for people with disabilities, but for other people as well. For instance, many tourists visit Bhutan, and some of them are old people who may have difficulty in climbing stairs or may even need wheel chairs. Making the hotels accessible will benefit such tourists as well as local disabled persons.

Also, our policies should not be to develop something just for disabled people. Whatever we build, we must build for the use of all people, disabled and non-disabled.

Have you considered joining politics?

[Laughing] I’m so happy with my current life that I don’t think of anything else.