During my reporting in Taiwan, I met with doctors who serve patients in rural Indigenous communities. These health professionals were able to share their outlook on public health issues and to comment on Indigenous health disparities from a clinical perspective, and I believe their work remains essential. However, once I met with Indigenous healers on their own terms (and often in their own homes), a more rooted understanding of Indigenous health began to take shape for me.
After meeting with an Amis Sikawasay [shaman] and a Bunun traditional medicine healer, I found that Indigenous residents often maintain a more holistic idea of what it means to be healthy. Whereas a doctor may focus on blood glucose levels or smoking cessation, Indigenous medicine keeps the person in view and has the courage to ask questions of the spirit, of how one lives one’s life.
As a medical student myself, I don’t mean to mythologize or idealize this approach. Rather, I believe that these individuals I have met and learned from understand a central element that is too often missing from Western medicine. Taiwan’s traditional Indigenous healers consider a person in relation to their ancestors, to their family and community, and to the environment in which they live.
I was often struck by how at home I felt when meeting with various Indigenous health practitioners, and I realize now that their generosity was drawn from a deep well of tradition and a sense of belonging to place. The patient is seen as a guest, rather than an object of study, and another person’s suffering does not imply their alienation.
I feel incredibly grateful that I was given the opportunity to share some of these stories, which I believe offer radical answers to how we can go about caring for other people.