Anne Fadiman addresses a number of difficult topics in her depiction of a Hmong couple's quest to restore the soul to their child. While I consider my...moreAnne Fadiman addresses a number of difficult topics in her depiction of a Hmong couple's quest to restore the soul to their child. While I consider myself a culturally sensitive individual, having been raised in a family of doctors and nurses, I have long held the conviction that the world's best doctors (whether imported or native) tread on American soil. Reading Fadiman's account (which sometimes includes actual excerpts from the patient's charts), I was forced to take a hard look at my assumptions. In the course of reading this book, I have redefined my idea of what constitutes a good doctor.
Fadiman spent hundreds of hours interviewing doctors, social workers, members of the Hmong community--anyone who was somehow involved in Lia Lee's medical nightmare. She pored over years of medical records, trying to make sense of the events that caused a spirited, loving toddler to slowly devolve into a vegetative state. What she found was that the doctors' orders, prescribed medications, hospital care, etc., were all based on a number of Western assumptions that did not take the family's (and child's) best interests into consideration. No attempt was made to understand how the family saw the disease or what efforts they were making on their own to address the situation. More than a translator, what doctors and other professionals involved in Lia's case needed was a "cultural broker" who could have stepped in and possibly saved Lia's brain from further deterioration.
Fadiman's book is a difficult read, not because of specialized vocabulary or lofty philosophical concepts, but because there comes a point when the reader realizes that the barriers faced by those involved were much more cultural than they were linguistic. In a very real way, the Lees inhabited a different world than the doctors, and vice-versa. Each assumed that their way was best, and neither made a genuine effort to understand the other's motivations, much less their logic. In the end, there was no simple solution to their plight, but more mutual respect and understanding of the differences between the cultures would have benefitted everyone involved.
If there is a moral to Fadiman's work, it may be this: The best doctors are not those who know the most, but rather those who admit what they do not know, and try to understand the full picture. Good doctors may treat the disease, but the best doctors treat the individual. (less)