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Author Archives: Changvang Her
I interviewed Ye Her, a 59-year-old female who says she was chosen by the shaman spirits when she was five years old. Because of the war, she wasn't fully trained until she was 43 years old. When Ye Her was a little girl in Laos, she says she got really sick and visited a master shaman who determined that she was chosen to be a shaman. She was five years old at the time, and not mature enough to do her training. The war broke out when she was a teenager, and she escaped to Thailand to escape persecution. She came to the United States as a refugee in 1993 and has lived in Merced since then. Ye Her says she wants to be called niam neeb, meaning 'shaman woman.' I began my interview by asking her what she thought about the Partners in Healing program.
In 2000, the first Hmong interpreter/cultural mediator was hired to work with the resident doctors at the Family Residency Program at Mercy Mercy Medical Center Merced. Many residents were overwhelmed when they saw the thick chart of Hmong patients with chronic illness such as depression, diabetes, hypertension and chronic pain. Part of the problem was, they were unable to understand the patients' indirect communication style. It often takes longer for Hmong to communicate their health problems, because instead of answering a question with a 'yes' or 'no,' the Hmong patients give the whole story. This is especially true among the elders. For example, if a doctors asks a Hmong patient, "How long do you have this symptoms?" The patient's response may be something like, "Well, I had this problems since my father-in-law died, and that is when I had my second child. He is now 20 years old." The response could have been "Twenty years."
Before coming to the United States, Hmong relied on shamans and herbalists to treat their illness. Access to western medicine was limited. But here in the U.S., Hmong seeking medical care is still a last resort. Many believe that an open incision will increase the chance for evil spirits to make a person sicker, so they don't trust the western practice of performing surgery on patient. Blood and organ donations are also not common because many Hmong believe that missing body parts will contribute to birth defect in the next life. These cultural differences, as well as language barriers and lack of patient educations, are barriers to good health in the Hmong community.
There is no word for mental illness in the Hmong language. The term 'mental health' in Hmong translates to 'the pain in the brain, or damage in the brain' (mob hlwb, or xiam hlwb). The term 'Department of Mental Health' translates to 'the House of Damaged Brain' (tsev xiam hlwb). Because of these stigmatizing translations, many Hmong don’t want mental health treatment. They don’t want to be seen as crazy in the community.
During the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Secret War” in Laos, when a secret guerilla army of some 30,000 Hmong were recruited to fight against the North Vietnamese, my father, Chue Zang Her, and my three older brothers were killed. As a young male teenager, I had to be responsible for everything as the head of the household. After the CIA withdrew in 1975, we had to join the resistance group in attempt to evade capture of our family, including my elderly mother, Nou Thao, who was blind for as long as I can remember.