Hmong shamans learn Western medicine practices

March 10, 2011 

A group of women giggled inside a mammography room at Mercy Medical Center on Wednesday night.

They were not there to get screened for breast cancer -- they were there to learn more about Western medicine.

The women are graduates of the Partners in Healing program, which allows Hmong spiritual healers, known as shamans, to conduct healing ceremonies when requested by Hmong patients or family members to meet their spiritual needs, provide support and promote optimal healing.

The program began in Merced 11 years ago, and since then about 100 shamans have gone through the program. The program was facilitated by the Healthy House Within a MATCH Coalition in Merced in partnership with Mercy and other community organizations.

Janice Wilkerson, Mercy's director of Mission Integration, said the hospital received a $25,000 grant four years ago from Catholic Healthcare West, which owns the hospital. Since then, the hospital has been using the money to bring back graduates of the Partners in Healing Program to extend their education on Western medicine.

Every quarter, the hospital will host an event and invites the shamans to come back. "So that we don't lose touch," Wilkerson said.

She said the funding should last for about three more years.

Dozens of graduates who attended the event Wednesday night took a tour of the imaging department, had dinner and heard a talk about diabetes.

Palee Moua, director of cultural services at Healthy House, said funding for the Partners in Healing ran out in 2006. Officials were able to use funds from the Hmong Health Collaborative in November for the last graduating class of 11 women shamans.

Moua said there are people in Merced, Fresno and Sacramento who want to go through the program, but there's no more funding. She said she hopes to get funding and, through collaboration with those communities, be able to serve those who are interested.

Moua said anywhere between four and five Hmong patients are admitted at Mercy every day.

Nancy L. Mua, a shaman who graduated in November, said she hasn't had the opportunity to work with a patient yet. But she's waiting for the phone call that could come at any time.

She said she's retired and would be more than happy to help any patient. "I'm available at any time," she said. "I like to help the people."

Candice Adam-Medefind, executive director for the Healthy House, said the Partners in Healing helps "bridge these very serious health disparities," between the Hmong beliefs and Western medicine.

In 2009, Mercy became the first hospital in the nation to implement a formal policy that identifies nine ceremonies that shamans are able to perform at the hospital, Wilkerson said. The hospital has had several inquiries from other hospitals regarding its policy.

Moua said there are several actions she would like to see happen at Mercy to re-emphasize the policy. For example, doctors should call a shaman if they have a patient who is going to go through a critical surgery.

Also, doctors should refer patients to shamans, and the other way around, as well as collaborate with UC Merced once it gets its medical school up and running.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507 or

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