Va Meng Lee is a shaman who works with spirits to heal people and protect their souls. This sort of work usually gets short shrift by western medicine, but Lee works at a hospital, right alongside doctors.
Lee is a shaman and he works at Mercy Medical Center in Merced, California. This hospital was one of the first in the U.S. to formally recognize the role of traditional healers.
Lee says that doctors are good at treating disease, but shamans are responsible for the soul. Like many other cultures, the Hmong believe that parts of the soul can be lost or stolen. Lee’s role with patients is to protect their souls. He does this through ceremonies and rituals.
Many types of medical intervention are taboo for the local Hmong. Shamans were brought into the hospital for one simple reason, to build trust in western medicine within the Hmong community. According to Dr. John Paik-Tesch, the program actually “built trust both ways.”
There was originally a lot of skepticism, but that began to change after a Hmong clan leader was diagnosed with a gangrenous bowel. The doctors hesitantly allowed a shaman to perform rituals. The man miraculously recovered, causing quite a stir at the hospital.
The power of shamanic healing is not agreed upon by all. While some swear by it, many dismiss it as the placebo effect. In other words, they don’t think the shaman’s ceremonies can actually heal a person. They believe that the patient gets healed simply because the patient believes they will be healed. In conventional science, the placebo effect is something to be avoided. But this way of thinking might not hold water anymore. According to recent research, placebos are not just psychological.
Placebo researchers Ted Kaptchuk and Kathryn Hall have found evidence of how placebos work on a molecular level. They have found that the success rate of placebos for some conditions is connected to the presence of an enzyme. Depending on one’s genetics, this enzyme is more or less present. This means that some people may be more genetically predisposed to being healed by placebos. These findings imply that it’s not all in the mind.
According to Kaptchuk, rituals can have a big impact on us through the placebo response. He believes that rituals are able to persuade the mind, and the mind can affect the body. Perhaps shamans like Lee are leveraging the placebo effect through their rituals. Or perhaps they really do invoke spiritual healing. Either way, Mercy Medical’s resident shaman may be doing a lot more than building trust.