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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall down

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Cultural beliefs and religion are a common factor in several tribes and communities across the world, from the ancient times to the present modern day times. These cultural beliefs have affected several fields like medicine and very often complicated the way medical procedures are usually outlined and followed. It is quite a monumental challenge for doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel all over the world to deal with patients who put their cultural beliefs ahead of their lives. This paper will explicitly explore this conflict between cultural beliefs and medicine with regard to the principal actors in the play ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall down’ by Ann Fadiman.

Lia Lee is the common figure in the story, she is more or less the main subject, the subject used to symbolize how the cultural beliefs affect the efficiency of medical delivery; she is epileptic. The cultural practices within Lia’s community are keenly observed right from the day when she was born. The writer of the play says that Lia could have been born in Laos, with her mother squatting on the floor and pulling the child from her own womb with her own hands. This clear statement solidifies the fact that Lia’s community did not see the importance of delivering in the hospital or the risk that is involved by such deliveries in the event when a problem occurred. The play goes further to state other cultural practices that were observed during birth; Lia’s mother would labour silently thought the whole process so as not to wake up the newborn sleeping baby until he or she cried. Lia’s mother had actually given birth to twelve other children before (Fadiman 67).

As the story develops, it continues to show the disbelief of Lia’s family in modern medicine. In the event that Founa Yang developed any complication during the delivery process, the family had various courses of remedy, among them the possibility to seek the services of a ‘shaman’. A shaman is a local traditional doctor who the Hmong believed had the ability to enter a trance, ride a winged horse and even cross an ocean infested by dragons among other superstitious activities. The shaman did all these in the name of negotiating on behalf of his patient’s health with the spirits in the realm of the unseen. These events disclose and explain the attitude of the Hmong people towards modern day medicine. In their view, modern day medicine is a complete waste of efforts. The cultural beliefs and practices rule over modern medicine. Both Founa Yang and Nao Kao Lee are to the followers of these cultural beliefs and practices (Fadiman 78).

Three days passed after Lia’s birth. It was a common cultural practice among the Hmong people to perform the ‘hu-plig’ ceremony. The Hmong believed that soul loss was the common cause of sickness among its people, that life souls were highly necessary for excellent health and the happiness of babies. It is ingenious how the Hmong people described the causes of diseases within their community. A description that has no place in today’s world where the true causes of diseases are scientifically defined and their respective treatment procedures are well outlined. Back to the Hmong, because of this ceremony, they were fully satisfied that Lia was now protected from all kinds of illnesses. A pig and two chickens were sacrificed to show how serious this ceremony was to the Hmong.  The ceremony would then end with the elders blessing Lia. Her parents, Foua and Nao Kao, would promise to love the baby for the remainder of their eternal lives and the ceremony would settle. (Fadiman  98)

Lia’s epileptic seizures began when she was three months old. By this time, the Hmong people had migrated from different regions, from central China to France. The narrators tell a lot of character traits of the Hmong people. They do not like losing, they would stage fights, they do not surrender, and they would flee rather than give up to their enemies. This sudden disease amazes the Lees despite the careful installation of her soul that she had undergone when she was three days old. The Hmong people thought the Spirit that catches you and you fall had entered Lia. To them, this was a blessing in disguise. In their culture, this spirit also affected the shamans as it only chose upstanding people. Therefore, they developed mixed feelings of pride, fear, and concern. Lia was the favorite of the Lees; they loved and dressed her in the best clothes. They blamed the cause of their favorite daughter’s misfortune on the slammed door in the wake of her first sign of symptoms of epilepsy. They even went ahead to lay the blame on Lia’s elder sister, the person who had slammed the door, this temporally disturbes Lia’s soul (Fadiman 139).

Lia had over twenty seizures in the first twenty months of her life prompting her parents to rush her to the emergency room of MCMC more than two times. In the hospital, the Lees encountered several problems ranging from incorrect diagnosis to translation problems as there were no Hmong doctors working in the hospital. Dan Murphy, a visitor of the Hmong community who later interacted with them, realized that the Lee’s were notably terrified about their daughter’s illness but not as terrified as he was and his wife would be if Lia was their own daughter. Dan’s views tend to give an impression that the Lees do not have the medical knowledge of what their daughter was suffering from and how dangerous the disease was. This further shows that the Lee’s do not believe in the course of the modern treatment offered in MCMC hospital. The Lees take Lia’s condition casually and relate it to the ‘when the spirit catches you, you fall down’. Dan, having learned much about epilepsy in his days at the medical school, despite being a rationalist in medicine, admitted Lia to hospital, ran various tests about what could be causing the epilepsy even though it was unsuccessful. No cause was ever found, and Lia was subsequently discharged (Fadiman 209).

The Lees did not believe so much in the western medicine even after their daughter had numerous almost fatal seizures. The Lees even went ahead to discontinue Lia’s medicine some time after administering it. Their view was that a person could not be on drugs forever. The nurses who were sent to the Lee's home to give specialized attention and treatment to Lia complained about the Lees’ unfriendliness. According to the Lees, their conclusion was that western medicine was causing their daughter even more seizures and fever. In most occasions, the Lees were non-compliant with the western doctors who were prescribing the best medicine for their daughter. They had a poor attitude towards the western medicine. This attitude symbolizes the conflict that the American and the Hmong people shared (Fadiman 211).

There was quite a number of various differences that the narrator of the play brings on. The Hmong medical personnel and the shaman would often visit the patients at home and spend several hours examining the sick individual while the Americans visit hospitals and spend few minutes examining the patient before coming up with a prescription of the drug. The narrator says that the American doctors were a little rude or asked their patients rude questions. Shamans were polite. They believed a patient deserved polite treatment and never spoke or asked rude question to their patients. The nurses at the ER at time wished and prayed that Lia could not be admitted just because she was troublesome. This is a sign of impoliteness to the sick. In case a patient passed on, the spirits were blamed among the Hmong, the doctors were held directly responsible for their patients’ death. This shows that the Americans had a firm believe that medicine was the only way to alleviate illness from a patient. They knew that the doctors with the knowledge they acquire in schools were fit enough to heal any kind of sickness. Unlike the Americans, the Hmong are not shown to have any belief in the western medicine. The lord gives live, and the spirits take it. This seemed to be their ideology, so they had no reason to blame the shamans. The Hmong believed that there was a limited amount of blood in the human body. They could not understand why the western doctors were continuously pricking the bodies of their patients with needles subjecting them to further loss of blood (Fadiman 251).

As the plot of the story wears on, the shamans and the American doctors are shown to develop similar observation about life and medicine. They both agreed about the use of antibiotics in the human body (Fadiman 287). At least, in this noble factor, there is light that the Hmong and the Americans can actually agree when it comes to issues about life and medicine. The Hmong’s have to be enlightened in order to resolve most of these conflicts. The lack of education with their culture actually ties them down to their cultures even more tightly. Education is imperative. The American people ought to develop friendliness towards the Hmong. A tense relationship is observed among the American medical personnel towards the Hmong. These are the only ways that these conflicts can be resolved.

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