Monday, July 20, 2009

Books Matter

Like many tightwad readers, I often buy books at yard sales, thrift stores, and any cheap outlet I come across. Recently I brought home, among others, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a detailed case study and history of a Hmong child born in the US who developed a devastating seizure disorder. The child, Lia, had multiple admissions to a hospital in Merced, where the whole staff did their best, given an almost insurmountable divide between her parents and those who neither spoke Hmong nor understood the deeply held cultural beliefs that forbid surgery, invasive procedures, or ongoing Western medication. The Hmong, having suffered horribly during their escape from S. E. Asia, rely on their shamanistic blend of health care and spiritual advice--pretty much one and the same. No surprise, in retrospect, that Lia's doting parents never understood or approved of the treatment their daughter received. It all came to a sad end in which the child lived, but without any perceptible brain function beyond the brain stem. She breathed, her heart beat, she digested the food patiently spooned into her by a mother who ended up never leaving her daugher's side, she no longer seized because most of her brain was inert, but she never again spoke or knew what was happening to her.

What impresses me, in addition to the detailed and well written text, is the need for such books. As a nurse, I often faced language barriers and struggled to understand cultural difference. One has to in order to care for people who are, almost inevitably, different from oneself. I don't work as a nurse now, and I have no experience with Hmong culture, probably never will, but the book has given me what I need to try again and again to understand the diversity that is increasingly a part of being an American. The book holds that experience in place, makes it available for me to return to it, to share it with friends, to treasure the knowledge. Imagine that, a significant lesson in decency and its limits in the face of ignorance. All for a couple of dollars. Ah, books.

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