October 13, 2007

Qaug dab peg

Posted in Literacy Needs at 7: 47 pm by MK

Translation: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

I don’t know if I have ever been so captivated and moved by a book before. If you haven’t yet read it, read it. Author Anne Fadiman writes the moving account of the Lees, a Hmong refugee family, and the American doctors who all struggle to treat Lia, the Lee’s epileptic daughter. Well, epileptic by American terms. The Lee’s believe that a “dab,” or evil spirit has stolen Lia’s soul. Lia’s spirit was frightened out her body and stolen by the dab due to the loud slam of a screen door when she was three months old. Thus, quag dab peg: the spirit catches you and you fall down. However the illness is defined, treatment of and care for Lia is attempted through cultural and language barriers.

Fadiman writes the account in such a way that you leave the book knowing either side cannot be blamed. Both the doctors and the Lees want the best for Lia–that becomes obvious. But how do you balance eastern vs. western medicine? How do you convince a family who doesn’t speak your language to keep administering drugs that are causing clear side effects? How do you tell a tired, overworked doctor that the problem is a baby’s spirit has gone missing? How do you explain to a refugee family that their daughter is being taken into foster care because they are not caring for her properly? How do you convince the family they aren’t caring for her properly when they are doing everything in their power to help her be well?

Reading Fadiman’s book, makes me realize that the communication issues I have been having with A. & K. are low-stakes issues. While having enough food stamps, getting the children into school, having a TV set connected, and explaining door-to-door solicitation are all potentially serious issues, they aren’t to the level that could someday potentially happen. I have explained the concept of 911, but if one of the children became seriously ill would they remember the lesson and dial it? The Lees would often first contact a relative who spoke limited English to come to their house and make the call for the ambulance, losing precious moments. And if they did bring their sick child to the E.R., how would they communicate with the doctors? Obviously I pray they never have to face this scenario, but it’s clear that others, like the Lees, will and have faced this situation. One thing that seems overwhelming about the situation is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to address or prevent it.

Refugees in my area seem to have a good state and federal network of support and help. All of the folks I have encountered at the U.S. Committee of Immigrants & Refugees are clearly invested in the well-being of refugee families. For some, the job is simply their life–they work long and odd hours simply helping people adjust. But what happens when someone fall through the cracks? Or what happens when a family, like the Lees, encounter such a difficult medical situation the cultural and language barriers seem impossible to work around?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I don’t think Fadiman has them either. I think the only thing we can do is read books like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and try to understand.

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