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TMCNet:  The Wisconsin State Journal Doug Moe column

[July 17, 2013]

The Wisconsin State Journal Doug Moe column

Jul 17, 2013 (The Wisconsin State Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Tamnit Ansusinha was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1933, and lost his mother to a lung infection when he was 3 years old. It put him on a mission. When he was 5, he announced, "I will grow up to be a doctor, because there were no good doctors to treat my mother." On Monday, 75 years after his career pronouncement, Ansusinha -- friends call him Tam -- sat sipping coffee at Victor Allen's on Odana Road. He's 80 now, a doctor after all, retired from Madison Radiologists, and busier than ever.

Ansusinha leaves Thursday for another extended visit to his native Thailand, where across the past two decades he has changed how breast cancer is perceived and diagnosed in that country. When he started, he and his small staff saw five patients a day for mammograms and ultrasounds at their Bangkok clinic. Now they see over 200 daily in a greatly expanded facility. Ansusinha has traveled the country raising breast cancer awareness, encouraging better self-examinations and early detection. His positive impact on women's health in Thailand is inestimable.

The next time you hear a 5-year-old make a life promise, don't laugh.

Ansusinha himself laughs plenty. He has been in Madison 50 years. He's friendly and engaging in conversation, modest, too, perhaps in part because as we chatted he got sidetracked onto golf. Ansusinha is a member at Blackhawk Country Club and loves the game, which has a way of keeping you humble.

He recalled taking up golf in 1981 and finding himself on the driving range at Vitense Golfland, sending balls right and left with rapid inefficiency.

Suddenly, a voice: "Son, come here." It was George Vitense himself, the patriarch. He placed his hand on Ansusinha's head and demonstrated how much easier solid contact becomes when you're not swaying or lunging. Then Vitense took Ansusinha into the golf shop and sold him a set of clubs for $39.95.

He was in the United States at all due to the influence of his father in Thailand, who encouraged all four of his children to come to America.

"He was in the import-export business," Ansusinha said. "He exported me." That was after Ansusinha graduated from medical school in Thailand. He had an older brother who went to Cornell and settled in Chicago. Ansusinha landed a radiology intern position at Milwaukee County Hospital and from there went to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

It was in Seattle that Ansusinha met a visiting Swedish radiologist who offered him a position in Sweden. There was a small catch: the Swedish doctor wouldn't be returning and have an opening for nine months. Ansusinha found what he thought would be a temporary position with a group of three radiologists in Madison.

Ansusinha and his wife, Chirawan Ansusinha -- also a physician, they met in medical school in Bangkok -- arrived in Madison in 1963. They had a young son, and Chirawan was pregnant with another. They liked Madison. Nine months in the city became a year and then two. The Swedish physician kept in touch at the holidays, saying the job was still open.

"The Christmas cards stopped after about 10 years," Ansusinha said.

By then Ansusinha and his colleagues had formed Madison Radiologists as a service corporation. It is now the largest independent radiology group in the area.

Over the years he returned to Thailand, and there was no way not to notice that as breast cancer awareness, screening and efforts at early diagnosis improved in the United States, the same was not happening in his native land.

"In Thailand, 20 years ago," Ansusinha said, "nobody talked about breast cancer." Around the same time, 1993, Ansusinha turned 60. "I decided I had to do something for my country." At first he split his time 50-50 between Madison Radiologists and Thailand, but within two years he'd retired from his Madison position. There was too much to do in Bangkok, work for which, it should be noted, Ansusinha has never received payment, not even expenses.

The launch pad for his efforts in Thailand came through his sister, who was married to the secretary of the mother of King Bhumibol of Thailand. It brought Ansusinha an introduction to the King's mother, Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother. In 1994, the Princess Mother agreed to establish a foundation and provide funding for a breast cancer clinic in Bangkok. She would serve as honorary chairwoman of the foundation, with Ansusinha general secretary.

"She told me," Ansusinha recalled, "you have to bring the most modern equipment to Thailand, and you have to treat rich and poor patients equally." The first year, the Thanyarak Breast Center treated only 1,400 patients. Thai women didn't know what they didn't know. Ansusinha began a breast cancer awareness effort -- brochures, videos, posters, television appearances -- that slowly, over time, turned the tide. The clinic was expanded, a mobile mammography unit was added. The clinic today sees more than 55,000 patients annually.

Tam Ansusinha now spends 10 months a year in Thailand. It is a demanding but rewarding schedule, and one that allows him to plan his Madison visits for those weeks when he can shake the rust off his clubs and get onto the golf course.

"I haven't seen the snow in 15 years," he said. "I don't miss it." Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

___ (c)2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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