“A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul”

“A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul” by Patricia Leigh Brown looked at Mercy Medical Center in Merced, CA where they have created a shaman program to strengthen their relationship with the Hmong community. The Hmong are refugees originally from Northern Laos, where systems of healing are different from the biomedicine that we are familiar with; Hmong healing is primarily spiritual. The Hmong believe in the natural and supernatural world and that health is the balance between these two worlds (Stanford School of Medicine). As biomedicine operates on a more mechanical platform, there is a lot of cross-cultural misunderstandings and issues that arise from the differences. In Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You, and You Fall Down, she discusses the case of Lia Lee, an infant with ‘epilepsy’, in biomedical understanding, and a ‘lost soul’ (or something to that effect) in Hmong understanding. In Hmong culture, Lia’s condition was a symbol of honor as it could result in her becoming a healer – a respected position. There was a lot of distrust between Lia’s parents with the biomedical doctors (and biomedicine) as they believed that the medicine was harming Lia while the doctors believed otherwise. After Lia suffered from a near-fatal seizure that ultimately left her in a vegetative state, it was found out that it was biomedicine that caused that – it was septic shock. I brought up this example of Lia Lee to emphasize the cross-cultural barriers/misunderstandings between the Hmong community and biomedicine. The hospital was terrible at understanding and working with Lia Lee’s family and their beliefs which played a role in her treatment.

The hospital that Lia Lee went to is the same one that this NYT article is discussing – Mercy Medical Center in Merced, CA. As there is a large Hmong population in Merced, around 4 patients that are received in that hospital are Hmong (Brown). To address the different cultural healing practices, Mercy Medical Center is actually the first to formally recognize and involve traditional healers. Hmong shamans generally use traditional home remedies; these involve cupping, coining, and massage to release pressure. The shaman program has only nine approved ceremonies, two of which are soul calling and soft chanting (Brown). However, other ceremonies involve burning incense, animal sacrifices, trances, etc. As these ceremonies are quite elaborate, Hmong healers are quite involved with their patients. The systems that this article is discussing are the professional and folk sectors. Mercy Medical Center (which operates in the professional sector) has created a shaman program which involve Hmong healers and their ceremonies to be a part of their healing system (which operates in the folk sector).


Brown, Patricia Leigh. “A Doctor For Disease, A Shaman For the Soul.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2009. Web. July 2014

“Culturally Appropriate Geriatric Care: Fund of Knowledge.” Ethno-Med. Stanford School of Medicine. Web. July 2014.

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997. Print.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Justin Blazejewski says:

    From this article and reflection post it is easy to say Hmong healing is much different than American biomedicine. In fact, about the only way these health systems compare is that they both are identified as healers by their specific culture or persons of use. Like this weeks lecture states, biomedicine comes from a more mechanical platform whereas Hmong is almost entirely spiritually based.
    Biomedicine also tends to rely on medication or surgery to physically alter the body from an ill state whereas Hmong seems to use a more “simplistic” route such as soul calling and soft chanting in Mercy Medical Center. Animal sacrifice is also a method of healing but cannot be used in this specific California medical facility.

    Given what I know about medical healing, I would prefer biomedicine to Hmong but that does not make Hmong illegitimate or ineffective. In fact, given Lia Lee’s near fatal seizure I see no reason why Hmong rituals shouldn’t have right to be used among such persons. Maybe like myself you believe biomedicine to be the most efficient way of healing but it also poses a high irreversible threat unlike many other healing processes. That is the chance you are administered something your body does not accept and from here the doctor must act fast. An attempt to relieve a patient of a medical substance rejection to the body (biomedicine) involves much more risk than a simpler attempt to sooth the individual through soft chanting or soul calling (Hmong). With this, I do find biomedicine to have more effective upside however Hmong may be a safer route to certain illnesses and for that it deserves medical credit.

  2. Sarah Newman says:

    In the article “A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul” by Patricia Leigh Brown, one can see that the ideas and healing practices of the Shaman in the Hmong culture is very different to the biomedical approach in American medicine and treatment. In the Hmong culture, Shaman’s are more of a spiritual healer. They preform rituals that are meant to cleanse a person’s soul from badness or from evil. In Hmong culture, illness is thought of as an attack on a person’s soul by an evil entity or bad spirit. The treatments “prescribed” by the Shaman Healers are usually physical rituals, such as the slaughter and eating of a pig or the transferring of the evil entity to an animal form from the person being affected, as well as, tying strings on wrists and prayers to remind and bless the person once affected by the evil spirits. In contrast, in American, illness and disease are treated after long tests and procedures used to come to a compact diagnosis. The biomedical approach seen in American medicine focuses on treated the disease only, rather then treating the whole body and mind as seen in the Hmong medical practices. Instead of rituals and psychological support, American medicine more focuses on treating the illness or infection at hand. Often these tests are done at hospitals and doctor’s offices, rather than in private homes as seen in the Hmong culture. I do not think the Hmong cultural medical practices are usually effective in treating actual disease, such as epileptic seizures where an anti-seizure medicine is more potent than a ritualistic ceremony riding the person of evil. Since biomedical approach recognizes that seizures are an abnormal firing of the neurons in the brain, something that is scientifically proven, rather than just evil taking over one’s body, the American doctors can effectively treat the symptoms and prevent damage, whereas, the Hmong cultural approach seems to have no effect and could harm the patient if the seizures continue However, I think American medicine can learn from the Hmong culture. I think American medicine should take a more holistic approach to disease and how the illness affects the patients live medically, economically, and socially, factors that can lead to the continuation of the disease even with treatment.

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