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I Demand The Witch Doctor, Not You!



“The kid’s been seizing for an hour, but the dad won’t let us give anything. No drugs, no oxygen. This kid’s gonna die!” The paramedic’s speech was pressured. “He’s turning blue and the convulsions have not stopped since I picked them up in the shopping center parking lot. What else could I do?”


The ambulance had just screeched to a stop in front of the urban emergency department where I was on duty. Summoned to the driveway, I saw the paramedic fling open the rig’s back door, revealing a dark-skinned man in his thirties clutching a preschooler. Initially limp and lifeless, the child suddenly began twitching his hands. The force grew stronger, encompassing his upper arms and shoulders. His thighs began jerking violently, and his back arched into a wicked contortion. The father struggled to maintain the child on his lap.


He glared at me, “No white man medicine can help my child! He is afflicted by a dark spirit. It must be expelled by, how you say, a witch doctor.” The father’s gaze was cutting, and he continued with a heavy accent. “You know NOTHING of spirit world. How could you help? I demand the witch doctor, not you!”


Conflicting views over health and healing are especially common when we care for people of dissimilar cultures. When crisis strikes, the resulting peril can be especially grave. What’s the allure of witch doctors and other traditional healers? For one, they usually prescribe “natural” treatments that seem less invasive, including herbal medicine, nutritional therapy, and physical therapeutics. It is no wonder that even ‘modern people’ continue to seek out such elements of care.


Traditional healing is also attractive because it often seems more holistic and integrated with one’s local culture. The book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down “For the Hmong people of Southeast Asia medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine… In fact, the Hmong view of healthcare seems precisely the opposite of the prevailing American approach, in which the practice of medicine has fissioned into smaller and smaller sub-specialties – isolated from society as a whole.”


I climbed into the back of the ambulance, positioning myself next to the reluctant father and jerking child. I inquired in an empathetic tone, “Do you known a traditional doctor among your people?”


The father seemed cautiously intrigued. “Yes, he is foreigner like us.”


“Then please allow me to treat your child,” I suggested, “while we also summon this healer to come to your son’s aid here at the hospital.”


The father seemed relieved and relented. “You still know nothing of my people, but our doctor, he can teach you.”


Iraqis, Indians, Romanians, Phillippinos, Africans… How can we provide quality care to those like this father and son whose view of healing contrasts so greatly? Let’s begin by extending an invitation to learn from them.

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