A Book That Changed My Life: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

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This essay was the runner-up of the 2019 Hooked to Books Scholarship program.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with medicine. Going to the hospital to visit sick relatives wasn’t a chore; I loved feeling the buzz of the hospital with busy doctors and nurses pacing about, always looking like they knew where to go and what to do. 

The hospital is where I imagined myself as an adult, being a part of the solution to a healthy community because of my passion for helping people.

As I grew older, this dream became more important to me because I always appreciated the attentive care my sick family members received in a hospital. I thought to myself, ‘I want to be a part of this’.  

In grade ten, I read, “The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down” written by Anne Fadiman, and my life changed. I still thought, ‘I want to be a part of this’, but for different reasons. I wanted to change the healthcare system in North America.

I was fuelled by Lia’s story of oppression and cultural disregard when she needed help from what I believed was the most trusted organization in the world. The healthcare system in Canada is atomistic and oppressive; the system and the people within it need to be more knowledgeable of holistic healthcare to be inclusive of other cultures through being educated about minority cultures’ ways of life and native language.

In Lia Lee’s story, her family moved from Laos, Thailand, to California when Lia was only a few months old. Lia was from the Hmong culture and had severe epilepsy; they believe that epileptic seizures are caused by evil spirits stealing people’s souls, but is also considered a spiritual gift. 

Throughout Lia’s childhood, she was in and out of the hospital and because of language and cultural barriers, did not receive the daily medication she needed from her parents.

She was placed in foster care because her doctors thought she was being neglected when her parents didn’t understand what was being asked of them and the requests did not follow their cultural beliefs. At the age of four, she fell into a coma. As Anne Fadiman wrote, “Her life was ruined … by cross-cultural misunderstanding” (Fadiman, Ch.18). 

This true story opened my eyes to the flaws in our healthcare system. In North American healthcare, the focus is on treating the physical disease or illness the patient has, not the spiritual self. Though many people do not believe in treating the spirit as a way to heal the body, it is incorporated into many different cultures. 

The oppression the Hmong culture received in the novel is parallel to the Indigenous people in Canada. Indigenous people have been oppressed for decades, especially through the atomistic healthcare system; the holistic view of Indigenous people contradicts the ontological reductionism view of the Western culture. This problem of cultural conflict is a relatable and on-going problem in Canada. 

This issue is not easily solved; cultural exclusivity is prominent in the Western world because of the immense power held in the white man’s hand and the ignorance of minority world-views. This idea of cultural power seeps into our society, like our healthcare system. 

In the novel, the author describes minority cultures by writing, “… no matter what pot they are thrown into, tend not to melt” (Ch.14). Though this is nice to believe, I disagree. Indigenous people in Canada still feel the effects of colonization today through systemic oppression and assimilation. To start to break down the wall that separates atomistic and holistic ways of treating disease, the education of our doctors needs to change starting with learning about Indigenous ways of life.

This can be done through classes taught by Indigenous elders about creation stories, attending ceremonial sweats, powwows, and Sun Dances, and learning about the cultural importance of medicine bundles (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Experiential learning is a great way of understanding a culture and its origins. This holistic way of experiencing the world is not only important in treating Indigenous people as patients, but treating many people with similar holistic views and showing respect for their culture, even if it is not agreed with. Having a foundational understanding of Indigenous cultures can transfer to other cultures; the same respect, maturity and awareness is needed to be open to hearing the patient’s problem and helping solve it using more holistic ways.

If the doctor feels incapable of handling holistic care, they should be open to referring the patient to a local physician who can help, not just forcing contemporary medicine onto them. Patients with different worldview than the Western worldview should not be discriminated against or rejected in healthcare, and it can be solved through education and awareness. 

Through reading “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”, my perception of healthcare in North America has changed. Lia Lee’s story, though horrifying, generates awareness for the people who do not receive the right support they need and deserve from healthcare. This true story is not the only story of systemic oppression and neglect in North America. 

Unfortunately, Lia Lee passed away at age 30. She lived in a vegetative state since she slipped into a coma at age four, and though the doctors helped prolong her life through medication, her quality of life was poor; if she was treated with traditional Hmong healings, would she have lived longer or had a better quality of life? That question cannot be answered, but is important to ponder. 

My dream of becoming a doctor and saving lives now means more than ever. I want to save lives by healing, preserving culture, and being educated in traditional medicine. The problem of cultural ignorance is not easily solved, but can start with the proper education and experiential training of healthcare workers in Canada.

This may be expensive, but the pros of cultural preservation will far outweigh the cons. Respect, empathy, knowledge, and finding a balance between alternative and contemporary medicine are key in starting to evolve the healthcare system for the better. 

Lia’s emotional story is one that I will never forget, and fuels my passion for creating change in the North American healthcare system. Inspired by this book, I hope to get accepted into medical school, earn a degree in medicine, and become a leader in alternative healthcare throughout Canada.

That is how “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” has changed my life, and hopefully, will change other people’s lives in the future. 

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