Loving the Alien in Sickness and in Health

Too many recipients of health care today feel neither tolerated nor entitled, let alone loved

As I read Anne Fadiman's book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14, paper), which describes the clash between a Hmong immigrant family and their California health-care providers, a nagging thought gnawed at my conscience. Will the sick aliens I care for with slim-to-no command of English and little appreciation of American medicine see the love of God mirrored in the way I carry out my art of practice? Despite vestigial remnants of Judeo-Christian ethics in American health care, loving the sick stranger in our medical midst is the exception today, not the rule. When health care is functioning at its secular best, human tolerance is substituted for divine love, and government entitlement is offered instead of godly neighborliness. In the end, all too many recipients of health care today feel neither tolerated nor entitled, let alone loved.Award-winning journalist Fadiman (who succeeded Joseph Epstein as editor of The American Scholar) tells the story of Lia Lee and her family with gusto and uncommon literary grace. When Lia was three months old, she began to suffer from chronic seizures. Her family attributed the malady to evil spirits, in keeping with the animistic beliefs of traditional Hmong culture. Hence the arresting title of Fadiman's book, a translation of quaug dab peg, the Hmong term for epilepsy: the spirit catches you and you fall down.As Fadiman chronicled the family's medical misadventures, she chose to stand at a point of cultural tangency where she hoped to see both sides more clearly than if she were to stand in the middle. Come to a modern American hospital if you want to see faith marginalized. The separation of church and hospital today often feels like a higher barrier ...

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