by Anne Fadiman
When I first read a blurb about this book and added it to my “to-read” list, I was given the impression that it would be an examination of the differences between “Eastern” and “Western” medicine, and how immigrants to America may not accept “modern” medical explanations and treatments and choose instead to rely on their traditional ways of healing. And it is about this, but only in part.
We follow the story of Lia Lee, infant daughter of Hmong parents recently arrived in California’s Merced county, as she is diagnosed and treated for severe epilepsy. While the doctors try her on several combinations of anticonvulsants, her parents feel like the medicine is making her sicker, and they decide to give her only some of them, some of the time, while consulting with healers to bring her “wandering soul” back to her body. It doesn’t help that the Lees can’t speak or read English, and the constant changes in medications and dosages, and increasingly complicated medical instructions, get to be too much to handle. The side effects of the medications are sometimes severe, and when she is hospitalized she sometimes gets sicker from hospital-acquired infections, so it’s not difficult to see why they would resist trusting the doctors. They love Lia like crazy and try to find ways to heal her, but eventually, social workers take her away from her parents because they feel that she is not getting the medical care she needs. It’s a tremendously sad story, with the frustration and pain very clear on the sides of both the doctors and the family, both of whom think the other side isn’t listening to what they’re saying and are going to hurt the child.
This touching story is told in small pieces, while the rest of the book drifts towards educating the reader on Hmong culture and history, which, while interesting, wasn’t what I expected. I was really hoping for more of a comparison between the cultures in terms of medical beliefs and practices, but that topic is only lightly explored here, which is unfortunate, because I think there was probably a lot of material to work with. It’s more of a historical look at the Hmong people and their arrival in America in large numbers, and the culture clash they’ve experienced. Still worth reading, but know what you’re getting before you jump in.