The spirit catches you and you fall down

13th July 2007 by Judith Harvey

During its war in Vietnam, the USA fought a secret action against the communists in Laos. The CIA recruited the aid of the Hmong, one of Indochina’s hill tribes with little love for the Pathet Lao. Their participation cost the Hmong their lands and livelihoods, and many took advantage of American promises of reward in the USA. Few found their dreams fulfilled. The Lee family were one such. They were settled in Merced, a small city in California, with poor accommodation and few prospects.

Their daughter Lia developed intractable epilepsy. The account of their engagement with the US health services is compelling.

Every A&E department has its heartsink patients; Lia, taken to the emergency room countless times in status epilepticus, was Merced hospital’s heartsink. Hmong shamans rationalise epilepsy as what happens when the soul flies from the body: the spirit catches you and you fall down. Her parents were desperate to reunite their daughter’s body and soul; her doctors were equally anxious to control her seizures.  Lia’s tragedy was that, try though they might, they could not find a way to do so.

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