Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
Grandmother helps leprosy victims
Elaine Johnson, veteran of 12 Great Victorian Bike Rides, joined The Leprosy Mission Australia on a cycling tour of Thailand
I love cycling and I enjoy a ride whenever I am not working as a school crossing lady or visiting my three grandchildren. I love nothing more than to get out on the open road with the wind in my hair for a ride by myself or with my friends at the Geelong Touring Cycling Club.
As Geelong locals, we take on the Great Ocean Road or Bellarine Highway, cycling to Queenscliff or Anglesea, among other places.
On turning 66, I thought I was pretty lucky to have my good health and strength. I had been riding for 26 years for my own pleasure, to keep fit and sharing a leisure activity with my late husband.
I thought it was time to “get out and help somebody else’’.
The opportunity to travel to northern Thailand on a 10-day cycling tour with The Leprosy Mission Australia was just what I was looking for.
'Ride for Rehab' gave me the chance to explore the beautiful countryside of rural Thailand on a bicycle, learn more about the disease of leprosy, which still grips the country, and raise funds to support physical and social rehabilitation projects across South East Asia.
I had been told about Thailand’s beautiful islands and beaches but this part of the country was the place for me.
Based at a guest house at McKean Leprosy Rehabilitation Hospital in Chiang Mai, we set out each day to cycle around the sloping green pristine valleys. We cycled past rice paddies, banana plantations, fish farms and former leprosy villages.
We saw how the local people lived, many of them cooking outdoors. It was a relaxing ride each day that allowed you to take in the scenery. The shortest ride was 35km in one day and the longest 80km.
At the hospital, we would spend time with hospital staff and patients learning about the plight of people affected by leprosy and how the hospital was helping to restore dignity to their lives. The hospital provides surgery and physical and social rehabilitation programs.
We also got off our bicycles to lend a hand in painting run-down guest houses and carry out some garden maintenance at the hospital. Other spare time was given to sightseeing, having an elephant ride and visiting craft markets.
Some former patients, now elderly, still live in the compounds of McKean Hospital
It was quite sad to hear some of their stories of how they were treated due to the stigma of having leprosy. How they grew up having leprosy and were kicked out of their houses or had their houses burnt down and had to survive in the jungle alone.
However, through getting help at McKean hospital, their lives did improve. They were given medication and treatment, taught self-help skills and encouraged to start their own organic farming to become independent.
These people continued to live simple lives free from the materialism that turns the coils of our own society. They live a relaxed and happy lifestyle and continue to enjoy the love and warmth of the staff at McKean.
After enjoying such a relaxed atmosphere, I told my family I could almost retire in northern Thailand with a bicycle in hand if it was not for them
While in northern Thailand, I learnt that leprosy was a curable disease. People affected by leprosy can have medication and surgery to fix their deformed limbs, there is hope for them.