Thank you for joining us on the High Plains Public Radio Station. My name is Jessica Sadler, and I am a Science Teacher and STEAM facilitator in Olathe, Kansas. I am here with the other book leaders to discuss When the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. For all initial appearances this is based on the true case of Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and the battle forged by her family with the westernized world of medicine. However, there is a strong opportunity for learning more about the Hmong people and their centuries of history up to present day. This is particularly important considering these accounts came before the internet was readily available to many.
While initially intended to be a magazine article, When the Spirit Catches you was crafted into a book still used today by many studying literary journalism and medical professions. Both perspectives are told from the local medical community and the preliterate family of Lia Lee. With many strong themes present in this story, I will be speaking on the heavy conflict between westernized medicine and more “traditional” medical care.
The Hmong practice a ceremony after the birth of children which is meant to bond their soul to their new body. As the story takes place, Lia’s family believed her soul was separated from her body when she was three years old and her sister slammed a door scaring her. Shortly after this Lia begins showing signs of epilepsy. Her family allows western medicine to assist in helping Lia, unfortunately leading to a vegetative state to which she remained in until 2012.
Personally, I find it unfortunate at many points in my life that western medicine is revered over many other beliefs and options for curing various ailments. While oftentimes it can be a successful option there are many instances where that is not the case.
“If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?” This quote rang true to me for two large instances in my life, my birth, and my mother’s battle with breast cancer. Before birth, my parents were told my mother would birth a child with Down Syndrome. For a child being born in 1988, that is a huge knowledge to take on as parents not having me yet. I thank them every day for moving forward when others may have not.
Once I was born, I had two holes in my heart, a tube and ovaries covered in cysts, brain hemorrhaging, and seizures till I was four years old. My parents were told that I would never walk and if I did so would likely be “crippled” on my right side. They allowed me one surgery, the removal of the affected tube and ovary, which my mother still regrets. After trying the western medical route for my conditions, eventually holistic care and traditional medicine became my primary provider. The holes in my heart closed, seizures stopped, and I went on to be a collegiate athlete who could most definitely walk.
I also remember my mother’s breast cancer. It was identified by western medicine in 1998 and she was given the option of having her first chemo treatments scheduled that day. Politely declining she set out on a less traveled path to eradicate it herself and was thankfully successful. To many, this doesn’t seem likely or typically done, but it was. “Every illness is not a set of pathologies but a personal story” If she had simply accepted the initial terms of her condition could she still have been cured? Potentially, but with additional consequences. With both of our stories having successful outcomes it causes me to have a bigger scope of the ways other cultures handle situations. How can it be for me to judge their methods without asking more questions, without experiencing, and to the best ability possible empathizing with what could be better and what may not be as effective.
I will leave you with my second favorite quote of this story, “You can miss a lot by sticking to the point.” This is Jessica Sadler, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio Reader’s Book Club.