Listen: Southeast Asian immigrant folk medicine

MPR’s Rich Dietman reports on immigrants use of traditional folk medicine. Inside the International Clinic at St. Paul Ramsey Hospital, western medical professionals are trying to better understand the different medical approaches and treatments.


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RICH DIETMAN: There are several thousand Southeast Asians living in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area. Saint Paul alone has about 4,000 Hmong immigrants from the Central Highlands of Laos. When they are sick, many of them go to the International Clinic at Saint Paul Ramsey Hospital.

The clinic has Hmong interpreters. And physicians like Dr. Neal Holtan, who are particularly familiar with the immigrants' medical problems. Dr. Holtan gained that medical expertise during several weeks he spent at Ban Vinai, a refugee camp set up on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The camp was started by the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee. And Holtan was one of the first American doctors to go there. Dr. Holtan says the practice of coin rubbing is more Vietnamese than Laotian. And he hasn't seen much of it at the clinic. But he does say there is a strong tradition of folk medicine among his patients at the clinic.

DR. NEAL HOLTAN: I saw one instance of a girl who got her foot caught in the spokes of a bicycle. And she-- I tried to send her to have an X-ray. And they took her in the car to the hospital for the X-ray. And she showed up in the clinic two or three days later, and was walking around just fine. And I said, how could you have gotten well so fast? She said her grandmother healed her. I saw that.

RICH DIETMAN: Dr. Holtan said the girl offered no information as to how the healing of her foot actually took place. But he believes the child was definitely better. And he thinks there's some substance to the folk medicine practiced by the immigrants.

Dr. Holtan says much of the folk medicine in the Hmong community is practiced by elders or healers. And he says they may not be doing as much healing now that they're in this country simply because they're cut off from their traditional supplies of herbs and lotions.

Dr. Holtan says that while coin rubbing isn't practiced much here, a similar remedy that involves applying suction to the skin is. And while this practice also leaves marks on the skin, Holtan and his staff were not misled, as were some physicians in other parts of the country, into thinking they were looking at cases of abuse.

DR. NEAL HOLTAN: There is some sort of practice using, I believe, suction cups of some kind, possibly heated. And they form a round type of blister almost. And it's very obviously not due to any accident, because it's perfectly round. And we saw those at first. And therefore, we're not confused by some of the other skin findings that showed up in the article.

RICH DIETMAN: [? Yi ?] [? Lo ?] worked as a newsman in the Laotian army before leaving his country. He arrived in Saint Paul last March, and now works as an interpreter at the International Clinic. He says the abrasive techniques applied to the skin during home remedies are usually done when a person complains of fever, chills, or general fatigue. He says his wife may give him a treatment after a particularly trying day at the clinic.

SPEAKER 3: Sometime, they use the coin to scrub the back of the people with some of the Chinese lotion, and make sure they get some fresh air in. And then people feel good with the coin. Or sometimes they use the spoon to scrape the peoples back and make sure they get some fresh air into the body. And they feel good after fever or cheer only.

RICH DIETMAN: Do you think it works?

SPEAKER 3: Most people that they say it's work, but I also try it too. It's work too.

RICH DIETMAN: Another technique too, as [? Yi Lo ?] puts it, get fresh air into the body, is to take square patches of cloth, soak them in lotion, and then apply them to the forehead, neck, or ears. After the lotion dries, the patches are pulled off, creating what [? Yi Lo ?] describes as a fresh feeling on the skin. The technique is used for headaches, sore throat, or ear ache. I'm Rich Dietman.


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