This book is a wonderful medical anthropology narrative written by reporter Anne Fadiman who investigated the case of a young Hmong girl, Lia, who is stricken with an acute seizure disorder. Lai’s family came from Laos shortly after Foua, her mother, gave birth to her in the traditional Hmong way – by herself, in her own house – the same way she gave birth to numerous other children, 7 of which survived to move to the United States. The family settles in Merced, California, and shortly after arriving, Lia begins to experience acute seizure episodes, which prompt her family to take her to the hospital in Merced. Here begins a long period of struggle between the Hmong family and their American doctors – Lia’s family believes that she is destined to become a shaman because she is possessed by spirits, and the American doctors see a little girl with a serious problem. Because the Hmong have their own beliefs about the human body – like humans have only a certain amount of blood in their body and drawing blood compromises that – their ability to communicate their cultural medical views was hindered because of language and understanding barriers. Lia is taken away from her parents and put into foster care because blood tests reveal that her parents were not giving her the prescribed medicine – they believe it is the medicine that is making her sick. One day, Lia goes into massive status epilepticus caused by septic shock, and she sustains a hypoxic brain injury rendering her a “vegetable.” At this point, her doctors strive to understand why these cultural barriers were so strong and what they could have done, in retrospect, to prevent Lia’s condition from worsening so drastically.
Even though we have not discussed too much medical anthropology in this class, this novel is a testament to the disparity between western biomedicine and its technologies and cultural medicine – Laotians rely on their traditional medicine such as herbal remedies and sacrifices for medical care and western biomedicine’s tubes and needles and medicines caused a rift between the two cultures that has cost lives. Technology has benefited medicine in a profound way, however, this book is a good example of how understanding of peoples’ cultural beliefs may be more superior to western bioengineering.