Naturopath, author of “Natural Choices for Women’s Health,” and frequent Honolulu Advertiser contributor Dr. Laurie Steelsmith spoke with me in February 2007 about the clash of cultures seen in intersections of western, eastern, and natural healing. I expected her to be reading a book regarding health and spirit, but not one about the Hmong culture’s shamanistic view of medicine.

What I’m Reading | Dr. Laurie Steelsmith
Naturopath, Acupuncturist and Author

Q&A with Christine Thomas

–What are you reading?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” by Anne Fadiman. The book was fantastic. It was such a surprise that it was so good, one because it was so well-written, and two it shows the gap, the chasm between our western Cartesian model of medicine and a more animist way of looking at medicine.

The Hmong immigrants that came to Merced, CA, really had no idea of how western medicine is practiced, and their idea of western medicine was from our perspective totally far fetched. They actually thought we ate our patients. And our view of their shamanistic medicine is that it’s barbaric. The book is about a young girl who falls ill–she’s born in Merced–and she starts having seizures as a little girl. Her parents view it as a good thing because it means she could become a shaman, because she has access to another world. But the western doctors don’t see it that way. … It’s a tragedy that this little girl ends up becoming brain dead, yet at the same time the book illustrates the incredible gap between these two cultures. We think our way is the right way to do things. … They didn’t know how to integrate, and in the end when she does become brain dead, they all told her she was going home to die but indeed she didn’t. She was actually doted on day and night, and gained weight. …

The book is beautifully written, really an excellent book to read not only to understand our own culture better but also the Hmong culture. You can start to see outside your own culture.

The other thing that really struck me, being a naturopath, is that part of being a holistic practitioner is that we really integrate body, mind and spirit. That’s consistent with cultures around the world. Since Descartes separated body, mind and spirit now we have western medicine. In this book you can see how the Cartesian model doesn’t work for people who are raised in a situation where they are constantly integrated. … The book really resonated with me and taught me a lot.

–How did you find out about the book?

I joined a book club with women who are professors at the university. This was on their list for last year, so I’m catching up on all the books from last year, and the new ones.

–How does Fadiman get us to see outside ourselves?

She has so much compassion for these people trying to make sense of our society and how we see health and disease, so the reader walks away with so much compassion for another perspective. I think we tend to be fairly arrogant about our way of life—that this is the way of life every human should aspire to have. But as you read this book you see that maybe not—there’s another way that people can live and organize their society.

-The book demonstrates both sides’ passion for healing, but it was lost in translation. Did this story open your awareness about your patients, and your own translation of a different approach to healing?

Absolutely. And for people that are just so completely different than we are. I am trying to bridge the gap between western and eastern, western and holistic healing. But I also refer my patients to western doctors because there’s a time and place for it. What came up for me was really to understand the patient from their cultural orientation. You’re not just treating the rash, you’re treating the patient within the context of their culture and perception. That’s the piece that we need to bring into western medicine. It’s not just a rash, it’s a rash on a person.