Doctors and nurses across Maine not only need interpreters, but they also need to be informed of the traditional systems of healing to create a more inclusive and culturally sensitive health care system. 

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth and can be contacted at [email protected]

For three years I worked as a certified interpreter in the Maine health care system and I have observed a disconnect between it and the traditional healing practices of the many minority communities across Maine. The need to bridge this gap goes beyond hiring bilingual interpreters, who can only assist with direct communication challenges. I interpreters are crucial in explaining medical procedures and terminology, but it is also  important for health care providers to be aware of and respectful of the traditional healing practices that patients may prefer.  

Growing up in Somalia, diseases were widespread and with the absence of a robust health care system, the traditional practices filled the gap. When I had stomach pain, my mother would find herbs such as samagale, a seasonal plant that sprouts from the ground during the rainy season, and camel milk was often used for all kinds of afflictions. When a neighbor got ill, the neighborhood rallied around using Qur’anic healing, prayers and holy water. My mother talked about health as a state of balance and harmony between the body, mind and spirit. We have even used songs and stories to heal pain and treat the sick. These forms of medicine are passed on through generations and wherever we go, we have to hold onto that.

This is not to say one form of healing practices should replace the other. While many members of my community understand that traditional medicines are sometimes effective and helpful, we also acknowledge the importance of modern Western medicines, and many of us have standard health care providers in Maine.

As a certified interpreter, I still find it difficult to explain to doctors and nurses the traditional healing practices that our ancestors have used for centuries and are still widely used today. My mother, who is currently in Mogadishu, never went to a hospital for any health issues. Recently when she was not feeling well, she got camel milk, some herbs and lots of prayers, and it worked out fine. She was comfortable and the symptoms were treated. This is critical for the Maine health care system to understand in order to make cohesive, multicultural treatments.

The lack of understanding from people who work in modern medicine makes it challenging to create mutual understanding. A conversation I had with some of the immigrant leaders a while back was about the need to explain the scientific research and evidence-based practices of modern medicine to our community members, while at the same time holding on to our traditions. Many members of the community showed interest in this. It was important to talk about things they did not know, such as how these modern practices often focus on identifying and treating specific diseases rather than maintaining overall balance and wellness, and that each practice can be effective in its own ways and complementary to each other. It should not be only the immigrant communities trying to make this union.

Maine hospitals can connect with multicultural and immigrant leaders to discuss the best ways to provide these types of trainings. It can start with stories from patients who volunteer to talk about their beliefs. This should be done across the state’s health care system and should be prioritized. The benefits will include both communities learning from one another and eventually paving the way for a health care system that is inclusive and supportive for the minority communities in our great state.

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