Hmong Shaman Work With Traditional Doctors to Heal Patients at California Hospital

Hmong shaman work alongside doctors to heal patients physically and spiritually. . (Photo: Dignity Health/YouTube)

A small hospital in California's Central Valley is taking a unique approach to health care, allowing spiritual shamans to perform healing ceremonies on patients in conjunction with the hospital staff's more traditional medical care.

The Hmong, an ethnic minority in Vietnam, were recruited to work alongside U.S. forces during the war. Subsequently, many fled Vietnam after the war to avoid persecution. Many of these refugees settled in areas such as St. Paul, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and throughout California's Central Valley. That's why in the small town of Merced, which lies roughly halfway between Fresno and the state capital of Sacramento, roughly one-10th of the population is of Hmong descent.

When the Hmong first came to the U.S. in the late 1970s, there often weren't any translators in place at hospitals to help explain to patients why certain tests or medication were recommended. Similarly, patients were unable to communicate with the hospital staff about the healing practices used back in Vietnam.

This lack of communication led to mistrust between the Hmong community and hospital personnel, with most Hmong forgoing treatment until it became a health crisis. These cross-cultural miscommunications were the premise behind the thought-provoking book, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision Between Two Cultures," by Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman's book got people in the health care community talking about better ways to care for patients as a whole within the medical system, explains Fast Co.Exist. It changed the way that Dignity Health Mercy Medical Center in Merced viewed its Hmong patients.

After the book, things started to change

In 1998, just a year after Fadiman's book was released, a major Hmong clan leader was hospitalized at Dignity Health for a gangrenous bowel. The doctors had done all they could do for him and had transitioned to the stage of keeping him comfortable before he died. That's when Marilyn Mochel, a registered nurse at the hospital, and Palee Moua, the wife of a Hmong clan leader, asked the hospital administrators if a shaman could be brought to the hospital and given permission to perform a ceremony for the Hmong man.

The ceremony the shaman wanted to perform was lengthy and involved the use of several long knives — a problematic detail in a hospital setting. But there was a wing of the hospital under construction at the time, so hospital staff agreed to move the patient to one of these rooms. Almost immediately after the ceremony was performed, the patient's health rebounded, and he's still alive today. Sure, "medical miracles " happen all of the time, even without a shaman, but this case grabbed the attention of hospital doctors and staff.

Today, Dignity Health not only allows Hmong shaman to visit their patients; it encourages the practice. Shaman undergo a six-week training program that introduces them to hospital policies and the basics of Western medicine, while hospital staff go through similar training that gives them information about Hmong culture, as well as the 10 ceremonies that Hmong shaman are permitted to perform for their patients in the hospital. (More extensive ceremonies require prior administrative approval.) Shaman walk the halls with official badges and are given the same access to patients that hospital clergy would have.

The result is a deeper level of trust between Hmong community members and the hospital staff, which means patients are coming in sooner to address conditions such as diabetes, infections and cancer. When they're skeptical about a test or a medication, their trusted shaman can explain to them why it might be beneficial. In addition, patients can more easily communicate to their doctors about the rituals and ceremonies that may help heal their souls.

It's a unique way of looking beyond the blood tests and CAT scans, and it treats patients as a whole, both physically and spiritually. For the Hmong population in Merced, that's a real life-saver.