The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is an award-winning look at two cultures clashing over the medical treatment for a young girl. Part investigative journalism, part ethnography, part story-telling, this is a groundbreaking book that is now required reading in most medical anthropology classes.
When Lia Lee, daughter of Hmong immigrants in California fleeing the Vietnam War, is diagnosed with severe epilepsy, the American doctors and Hmong parents encounter several barriers to her care (to put it mildly). Epilepsy in traditional Hmong culture is considered a spiritual matter—the affected person has access to the spirit world via the seizures and the person becomes sacred. However, Lia Lee’s epilepsy was so severe that, if left untreated, could have very serious health consequences. Fadiman examines how a family that doesn’t speak English and holds tightly to their cultural beliefs and traditions clashes with an American medicine system that doesn’t know how to be culturally flexible. It is a heartbreaking and eye-opening story that I encourage everyone to read.
I read this book in undergrad and, at first, it made me angry. I was a fledgling anthropologist so I was frustrated with the Lees, with their doctors, and with the inadequate care this innocent child received as a result.
However, looking back on it with fonder feelings, I think this book actually changed my life. I was so irritated by the lack of cultural awareness in the medical system and how such inflexibility and Western-centric attitudes persist today that I wanted to go into healthcare after I got my master’s degree. In my interview for my current job, I cited this book as an example of how an anthropology background can be of use in designing medical care interventions. I think it goes further, though. I think this book opened my eyes to some huge care gaps that anthropology could help fill and that need motivated me to pursue healthcare and data analysis, where I serve as meaningfully as I can to improve patient care.
Working in the healthcare system can be jading, especially when you are exposed to the business side and the medical side. But whenever I feel disheartened, I think of all the patients whose lives my work can touch and improve, even though I’m just an analyst behind a computer building metrics to make sure people are providing the care that the system expects of them.
This doesn’t really relate to my writing so much, except with the idea that one book can change your course fundamentally. So you should always be exposing yourself to new ideas and different ways of thinking–you never know what you may find next or how it might affect you.