Lia, the silent teacher

What a devastatingly sad story about Lia Lee. It is a frightening thought that the doctor’s many people blindly trust could, in fact, be wrong all along. When this happens we may have a situation like the Lee’s were forced to go through. Had the Lee’s still been in Laos, how different would the medical care have been? Would Lia perhaps have been saved, or at least lived a different life than here in America? To better understand the Lia’s story we need to make sure we are aware of the reasons behind the Lee’s coming to the United States.

The only reason that the Lee’s were even in America, was because they were Hmong refugees. During the Vietnam war, America recruited the Hmong people to aid them in fighting the North Vietnamese communists. We know how the Vietnam war turned out, but what did we do about the thousands of Hmong’s who were left subject to communist rule after America essentially ‘packed up their bags’ and left? The Hmong were seen as traitors, who helped the Americans, and are discriminated against to this day. Many Hmong fled to America to seek refuge (Lloyd-George, 2011), the Lee’s were one family of thousands of Hmong’s who made it to the United States.

So, Lia and her family come to America, thinking it will obviously be a better situation than staying in Laos, and are tossed into a wildly different culture than theirs. They do not speak the native tongue and are subject to many laws, policies, and traditions they have never experienced before entering the United States. I cannot even begin to imagine how out of place the Lee’s felt in a world that so strongly believes in biomedicine. Currently and in the future, we must proactively cooperate with people of other nations (not limited to, but including the Hmong) that do not share the same beliefs as us. Lia’s family had extreme difficulties communicating with medical staff and following prescription drug schedules for her. They also were not able to practice traditions they thought necessary to cure Lia (Fadiman, 1997). To improve healthcare for refugees like the Lee’s, we must recognize when the culture difference is so great that there needs to be third party interference in order for both sides (biomedical and traditional medical advocates) to fully understand one another. Specific medical translators, who can fully communicate in whatever language need be should become regular for areas with high populations of refugees. Also, if a refugee’s family wants to practice traditions different from what we believe in medicine, barring the safety of the patient, we need to allow these customs to occur. Being openly accepting of different cultures, will allow other cultures to be more accepting of ours, making any process easier for both groups.

Ending on an inspirational note from Lia’s sister Mary who said, “Lia’s story brings people together. She was here to teach us all something” (Marcum, 2012). If Lia gave her life to teach us a lesson, we must not be ignorant in this respect and we have to learn from her time with us and the unique experiences her story has opened our eyes to. In the future, the knowledge we take away from Lia’s story could perhaps be the difference in losing a patient, or saving a life.

Lloyd-George. “The CIA’s ‘Secret War’,” The Diplomat (2011): accessed on August 10, 2016.

Marcum, Diana. “Lia Lee dias at 30; figure in cultural dispute over epilepsy treatment, Los Angeles Times (2012): accessed on August 10, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Lia, the silent teacher

  1. Hi Timothy,

    I like how you point to Lia’s story as a topic from which we all, especially the American health care system, can learn from. Lia’s story didn’t have to end the way it did, but who is to say that what the American doctor’s did for her was necessarily bad for her? We have no way of knowing what might have been in Lia’s case. The point we can take from her story, though, is to realize that each person on this earth has a different understanding of health. Within this understanding is a set of beliefs which influence the ways these people see health and illness and how they think illness should be treated.

    The world may never come to the point where everyone is understanding of everyone else’s beliefs, but we can learn from stories like Lia’s that a lack of understanding, especially in an area as important as health, can be detrimental. We cannot let our different beliefs get in the way of what is best for a patient. It can be difficult to tell what really is the best course of action, but working more closely with patients and their families could make a great deal of difference in refugee and immigrant health.

  2. Hello Timothy,

    You’re right. Lia’s story is a silent teacher. The story ultimately exposes the weakness of the American healthcare system. The flaw that American possess is the “lack of understanding”. It is very evident that the doctors basically disregarded everything that the Lee’s were trying to convey. This was a direct result of miscommunication due to language barriers. American doctors, nurses, and other professional refuse to realize that culture influences everything, even healthcare methods. The way one culture treats an illness or disease may be different from the methods we use to treat the same disease or illness.

    What really blew my mind about the story is how the doctors were so sure that Lia was going to die. What person wants to hear over and over again that their child is going to die? This also shows that a lot of healthcare providers lack sensitivity. What was even more amazing was that Lia’s health got better once she was back at home under the care of her parents. She surpassed her “death sentence” tremendously. The whole hospital situation relates all the way to the “explanatory model” concept we learned about a few weeks back. If healthcare professionals took more time in listening to their patients and at least try to seek a better understanding, treatment process would flow much easier.

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