Gran Torino, MD

I think I’ve figured out how they could pull off a sequel to the recent film Gran Torino: as the new movie opens, Clint Eastwood’s  über-curmudgeon Walt Kowalski lies in intensive care, riddled with bullet holes but not dead.  Grimacing, he opens his eyes.  Standing at his bedside is a horde of his Hmong neighbors, looks of concern on their faces.  With them is a Hmong shaman, a large rooster tucked under one arm and a shit-eating grin on his face.

Okay, even if you’ve seen Gran Torino you might not find that funny.  What you will find funny is that a Hmong shaman could actually show up at an American hospital, complete with live rooster, and not be turned away as a crazy person; indeed, he might be welcomed with open arms!

The New York Times ran an article last weekend called “A Doctor for Disease, A Shaman for the Soul,” which details a program at the Merced Medical Center in California, where doctors are trying to find ways to more effectively serve the nearby Hmong community.  (The Hmong–featured prominently in Gran Torino, a flawed but noble film–are an Asian ethnic group best known for their guerrilla support for the US military during the Vietnamese War.  As a result, thousands of Hmong have sought refuge in America.)  Doctors and hospital administrators at Merced are trying  is to understand and cater to the Hmong’s spiritual/superstitious beliefs, which often involve the casting of spells or the orchestration of complicated rituals, all of which helps put the patients’ minds at ease and makes them more cooperative with medical doctors.

Now, I’m all for doctors finding ways to help patients, and I know that doctors must often engage in psychological diplomacy at the same time they’re playing medical detective.  But I’m deeply torn by the thought of any science-based profession kowtowing to superstition, nonsense and illogic.  I suppose at the end of the day, saving a patient’s life or health is what really matters for doctors, but at the same time, doesn’t going along with all the rooster-waving folderol give it a false stamp of legitimacy?  Yes, I know every hospital in America has chaplains on duty.  But if we accept as a given that the majority (or at the very least, a large plurality) of Americans are going to be religious or superstitious, are we healthier in the long run if the medical profession sticks to medicine, or if it tolerates and encourages non-rational behavior?  I’m not sure I know the answer, but I’m open to suggestions.

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