Hmong Health is part of the pages about the Hmong people by Jeff Lindsay. These pages begin with "The Tragedy of the Hmong."
On this page, I discuss my observations about Hmong health issues and offer my personal advice. I am not a medical doctor, but do care and follow research on health and am a Ph.D. scientist working in a health and hygiene company (Kimberly-Clark Corporation). What I offer here, though, is really mostly common sense, in my opinion. I believe some of the discussion here might be helpful to my friends in the Hmong community.
Stay healthy and enjoy life!
Health Issue #1: Nutrition and Exercise
Hmong food is delicious and nutritious. Check out The Hmong Cookbook to see some of the beautiful and delicious foods that can be part of Hmong cuisine. But like most Americans, many Hmong people don't always eat the healthy variety of foods that they should. In American society, some Hmong people fall into the trap of feeding their kids lots of snacks and soda that might be convenient but certainly aren't healthy. So now we're seeing lots of young Hmong kids becoming overweight, when that's not part of traditional Hmong culture.
Healthy eating means fewer snacks and more fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains. Go easy on fats and meats, and be sure to include a lot of greens and other vegetables in the diet. Cut back on sugar. And dairy products, traditionally not part of the Hmong diet, aren't necessarily the best thing for your kids. Many Hmong people are lactose intolerant, and even if not, dairy products raise a lot of questions. I suggest staying natural, avoiding too much meat or dairy products, and having a varied diet.
Be sure to add exercise to your lifestyle. Many young people get plenty of exercise, playing soccer and volleyball, for example. But some adults don't get enough. Help your parents go on walks and make sure they stay active, and do the same for your kids. The basics of good diet and good exercise can help keep you away from the hospital or the doctor's office and live a healthier, richer life.
I am surprised at how many Hmong adults are afflicted with kidney failure and need dialysis. My observations suggest that one possible cause might be that many Hmong adults do not drink much water. People, you need water. Water helps flush waste products from your system and helps keep your kidneys healthy. Drink several glasses of water a day. Hypertension can also be a big factor in kidney failure. Many Hmong people don't understand the risk of hypertension and might overlook getting their blood pressure checked regularly. Encourage your Hmong friends or family, especially those over 40, to have frequent blood pressure measurements. This is very important. Blood pressure can often be checked for free, such as with the free equipment available at many Wal-Mart stores near the pharmacy area.
Health Issue #3: Fear of Medical Doctors
Let me share a story about a man in Wisconsin who was suffering from kidney failure. He was a middle-aged man, a kind and intelligent man, who still didn't understand American ways. He had become ill with kidney problems and went to see an American doctor. A prescription was given. When he went to the pharmacy to get his medicine, the pharmacist mistakenly gave him the medicine for another Hmong man with the same name. What bad luck that two people with the same name had prescriptions to be picked up at the same time! But this can easily happen when so many people share the same name. Remember, there are only 13 different last names in Hmong culture, and a fairly small set of common first names. The medicine for this other people was not what he needed. In fact, it made him very ill. This could have been fatal. Naturally, the Hmong man now did not have much trust for American doctors.
His condition grew worse, and the doctors told him that he needed to get dialysis to keep him alive. He refused, though.
A friend of mine, a respected teacher and church leader, went with me to visit our friend. He looked near death. He was pale, seriously dehydrated and very weak. We realized that he needed medical attention right away. We urged him to let us take him to the hospital.
He told us that he wanted to go back to Thailand to get a good doctor instead of the bad ones here. He told us that his friends had told him that a doctor in Milwaukee told Hmong patients that he was doing dialysis, but was really just drinking their blood. He didn't want some vampire doctor to drink his blood, and so he was staying home (where he would die) or flying to Thailand (which he could not afford). We spoke with him for quite a while and he finally agreed to just get in the car with us and go to the hospital. I am grateful that he trusted us enough to let us take him there, in spite of his bad experiences.
The hospital staff did a great job of helping him. They made an emergency stent to allow dialysis right away. But while he was there, his wife showed up. She knew us well, but was terrified. She yelled at my friend and accused him of trying to kill her husband through the bad American doctors. An Asian nurse came and comforted her and explained that he was OK and would start getting better.
Today, several years later, the man is alive and quite healthy. He has watched his teenage children grow up and excel in school. He has been able to be a father and a husband and a respected member of the community. But we almost lost him because of misinformation he had about American doctors - and because of a terrible mistake at a local pharmacy in Kaukauna.
We later realized that we were very lucky. If his wife had been home when my friend and I showed up, we would never have been able to convince him to go to the hospital with us. I think God helped us get to him at the right time. I really believe that. He came so close to dying.
It's important to help people understand medical care and the need for quality help when someone is sick. I respect Hmong culture, but if someone is ill or has a broken arm, they need to see a doctor, not a shaman.
Health Issue #4: Dealing with Hmong Culture and the Local Shaman
In Hmong culture, the shaman is a powerful and highly respected man. He is viewed as a communicator with the world of spirits, one who can see and understand things that are unseen to others. There are religious aspects to the work of shamans that we should respect, for they are an important part of Hmong culture. But we also need to understand that professional medical care is what people need when they are sick or injured. If your relatives or friends are ill, take them to a doctor. Perhaps a visit with the shaman can occur once the right basic treatment is being provided, but don't neglect the advice and prescriptions of a trained physician.
Health Tip: Make Sure You've Got the Right Prescription!
Hmong names tend to cause a lot of confusion for Anglos. They also cause confusion in computer systems since many Hmong names are shared by many people. For example, a small Midwest town where Hmong people live may have five or six people named Tou Lee, Mai Vang, or Chong Moua. It is very easy for two people of the same name to both have prescriptions to be picked up at a local pharmacy. So when you go, make sure the prescription came from your doctor and matches what he asked you to get. Bring the paper along that the doctor gave you and ask the pharmacist to verify that it's what you need.If you don't speak English, bring someone who does who can ask and check.
The first chapter (introduction) of a book by Dr. Sucheng Chan, reproduced with permission from her and her publisher, Temple University Press. It provides a helpful and detailed historical background of the Hmong.
Cathy Bao Bean, born in China, provides help for people dealing with cultural diversity in the United States. She is the author of The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, A Memoir and Manual, which is about how she and her husband raised their Asian-Caucasian son to be at least bi-cultural.