Written by Suong Thongkham
Translated by Evan Wang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
In October of 2018, Suong Thongkham departed for Taiwan to attend Tzu Chi’s Annual TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) Global Forum. Before she left, she accepted the task of studying TIMA’s courses, program plans, and arrangements in Taiwan. This provided Suong with a behind-the-scenes look at complex projects, as well as the tireless efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers.
Suong was placed into a dynamic and energetic team. Early to rise and late to bed, they spent long hours working and studying while taking care of additional tasks. Whether it be acting as guides or tackling other responsibilities, each time, they rose to the occasion. Suong and the others studied respect and tolerance, as well as how to put aside stubbornness to reach a consensus. In the end, Suong felt like she’d taken several great strides on the Tzu Chi path.
In March of 2019, together with Tzu Chi USA, Tzu Chi Medical Foundation hosted the TIMA Global Forum, welcoming more than 500 medical professionals from 17 countries to the event. Dr. William Keh, the CEO of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, appointed Suong as an important cadre, giving her his full support and trust that she would show her talent. Thirty Tzu Chi volunteers — including veteran volunteers Jingyi Lee and Susan Huan — also participated in the planning of the program alongside more than ten Tzu Chi collegiate volunteers to help with the administrative tasks. During that time, Suong attended countless meetings and faced various challenges, such as dealing with materials not arriving as scheduled, organizing personnel into their assigned spots, and mediating the occasional disagreements.
Despite all the preparations, a curveball was still thrown her way. It was decided that they would fly the flags of the 17 participating countries to demonstrate the spirit of the Global Medical Forum. The day before the conference, Suong and other volunteers carefully raised the flags at the entrance of the venue to welcome their guests from all over the world. She went to bed tired, but pleased with a job well done, and dreamed about warm welcomes. To everyone’s shock the next morning, all the flags had been snatched up by the wind and littered the ground. Suong rushed out to buy sandbags for securing the flagpoles and righted the 17 flags once more, and with time to spare before the conference.
As Dharma Master Cheng Yen has said, “Every big event is a great teaching.” Suong took these wise words to heart, and kept her faith that there could be no obstacle she would not be able to overcome.
Songs of Joy Soothe Distress
On one occasion during an international medical outreach event in Mexico, the patients had formed a long line before 5 AM, hoping to see a dentist, visit a doctor, or receive acupuncture. Whenever Suong witnessed another person looking disheartened at the long lines, she grabbed a microphone to lift their spirits with her wonderful music.
At one point, however, a volunteer had hurried up to her and said, “Suong, come quickly, Dr. Denq said that only you can calm everyone!”
Suong hurried over with her microphone and saw that some of the people in line were quarreling. She utilized her skills and immediately began singing a song of reassurance. She then spoke to a nearby translator, saying, “Please tell everyone that the doctors will be sure to see you today and you can go home happy. We just need a little patience because there are a great many patients. The doctors are working very hard, and we’ve come so far on your behalf, so please be patient. Everyone, please bear with us a little longer!” The words and music soothed the worries and frustrations of those who were in need of assistance, and they soon smiled once more. Members of Tzu Chi praised Suong as Tzu Chi’s peacekeeping force, for with her, there would never be a dilemma that could not be resolved.
In July of 2019, at the request of a Tzu Chi volunteer named Martin Keh, Suong became a frontline volunteer for the opening ceremony for a church in Ecuador that Tzu Chi helped rebuild after it was destroyed in a massive earthquake. She saw how Tzu Chi’s love had transcended borders to help a good cause, and the interfaith relationship between groups had affirmed Tzu Chi’s belief that love is without boundaries. At the church’s opening ceremony, Tzu Chi volunteers from all over the United States lined up with reverent hearts to offer their blessings, and Suong’s eyes filled with tears.
The First Virtual Forum
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 TIMA Annual Forum was held virtually. Suong first thought she would stay at home to watch and learn from the convention. When Suong arrived on the scene the first day, she saw several staff members and volunteers in front of computers doing their best to organize the live broadcast. Dr. William Keh, Dr. Stephan Denq, and Mary Keh, were all directing the effort. Volunteers, such as Grace Huang, Ching Ching Lo, and Carole Liu, were in charge of logistics, diligently providing for the needs of volunteers. Suong’s heart went out to them, and she immediately decided to stay and help lighten the load.
With careful planning by the sign language team’s leader, Rosi Ueng, a sign language performance was arranged for the convention. This would allow participants to relax during breaks in front of their computers and learn something a bit different. Before each sign language performance and whenever there was time, Suong rounded up volunteers to learn together as well, laughing and smiling all the while.
As she has walked the path of the Bodhisattva one step at a time for the past twenty-five years, the talented Suong shines brightly on the stage, yet remains humble and content. In essence, Suong radiates love regardless of the time or place, and is always ready to go the extra mile for others. With Suong, Tzu Chi International Medical Association’s future will be infinitely bright, indeed.