A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul

The New York Times article by Patricia Brown focused on a hospital in Merced, California where a man laid suffering from diabetes and hypertension. He seeks the help from Mr. Lee, a Hmong shaman, who focuses his healing on retrieving the man’s soul. The Hmong allow their spiritual beliefs to get them through illnesses which emphasize the importance of cultural traditional healers. In this particular hospital, shamans like Mr. Lee are allowed to perform 9 preapproved ceremonies that include chanting and “soul calling”. The shamans are also instructed to complete a training program that introduces them to the elements of Western-style medicine. With this exchange, it is hoped to create understanding and respect for those patients from different cultures that have different medical beliefs and/or practices.

Va Meng Lee is a Hmong shaman from northern Laos. In their communities and among their peers, shamans are leaders held in high esteem. Corresponding to the Hmong belief that souls have the ability to wander off or be captured by benevolent spirits, shamans have the ability to “negotiate” with spirits to return peacefully to the body that they left eradicating illness. The shaman-patient relationship is rather gentle and respectful and the focus remains on reuniting the patient with their soul. Some of the ceremonies performed involve animals but these ones are banned from the Mercy Medical Center in Merced. One particular ceremony involved the transfer of an evil spirit into a live chicken that walked across a patient’s chest (in the article, it’s stated that there would be problems with infection control). In one of the rituals permitted to take place in the hospital involved that placement of a long sword on the door to ward off evil spirits and the patient recovered from a gangrenous bowel.

Within the Hmong belief system, illness is seen as the cause of an absent soul; without the soul, the person is no longer whole and susceptible to illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. They do not agree with Western practices such as surgery, blood transfusions, and anesthesia and they do not take insurance or other forms of payment. This is contrary to the Western tendency to constantly invade the body with surgical instruments and foreign compounds to eradicate disease or illness. The Hmong shamans believe in a more natural approach to medicine. By gaining an understanding of how different cultures practice medicine, we can better understand how to treat patients in ways that do not conflict with their cultural beliefs.

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