First, Do No Harm

March 8, 2017
By , Chiang Mai, Thailand

He was feeling rather optimistic as he clumsily hiked up the muddy, narrow path with his old-fashioned medicine bag. The man whose name he didn’t quite get was already far ahead with a large basket filled with pomegranates on his back, turning to face the doctor once in while to eye this awkward foreigner whose skin was an uncommon shade of brown. The doctor  replied with a wide smile,  trying to hide the fact that he was panting from  the long walk up the mountain; The Thai man, however, simply ignored the doctor?  friendly attempt and continued his stroll.  All the  villagers were still skeptical about the doctor’s visit  - it was understandable, though.

Last month he had volunteered to come here after hearing that the hill tribe people did not have access to proper health care. Not long after, he earned the title of ‘Khun Maaw Dum,’ the Black Doctor, but it really held no respect; the people of the hill tribe considered him inferior because of his dark skin. . When he first arrived,, they were startled because the villagers pictured a tall, blonde, white American - perhaps if he were to look like that, he would have a better chance of persuading the villagers.

With that  thought in mind, he observed the “Ajarn,” their  word for someone in a very high ranking position, an elder or a shaman. The Ajarn  walked slowly, dressed in his typical white shirt and pants with bead necklaces around his neck but his eyes roamed through the area, as if he knew of a sly attacker that may strike anytime. His presence itself held an uncanny  power. His words were absolute, even the village chief would agree without reluctance. The doctor was greeted by the Ajarn on his first day when he turned back suddenly to see the man at his door. Through a translator, an educated Thai student who volunteered to teach at the village, he commanded the doctor to consult him and to not do anything on his own. Furthermore, he asked the translator to explain “the way of the tribe,” which was pretty much centered around the Ajarn himself.

The foreign doctor thought it was completely ridiculous for the hill tribe to put all their faith in  the shaman. His method of healing was based on  ancient beliefs of spirits and dark magic, communicating with the unknown. Some treatments were absurd: spitting out a chewed-up herb and wiping it on one’s wound, chanting a spell to a thin thread before securing it around one’s wrist, or even just handing a person  a bowl filled with water. In addition, he claimed to have the power to foresee bad omens and people would rush to him for advice. The price ranged from a few coins, to a grain of salt,to ten thousand bahts --  more than enough to feed a family in the village for a year. With irritation, the doctor had tried to speak up many times, offering the villagers proper checkup and medicine. Once in awhile, the children and few hard-working men would let him apply pain relief cream on their sore arms and legs from harvesting in the field. It didn’t take long for word about a wicked African-American doctor who tried to Americanize the villagers into the ways of the corrupt world outside to spread  throughout the village.

The man with the basket on his back stopped in front of a rundown house where two small children were chasing chickens in the yard. The creatures seemed relieved as the two quickly ran into the house to announce the arrival  of two strange visitors. As soon as the mother came to the door, the translator explained the situation. Her facial expression showed signs of relief with a mixture of doubt; nevertheless, she welcomed them into the house. Some words were exchanged between the poor lady and the doctor’s  companion as the sick boy peeked from behind the door. The foreign doctor knelt to his eye level, facing him directly with a kind smile, although he could sense the mother’s concern as she unconsciously stepped closer to her child.

According to the translator, the boy collapsed at school one day, unable to control his movements for almost half a minute, twitching his arms and legs. Other students screamed, yelling at each other to stay away from the possessed child. After he recovered, he had no memories of the event, staring back at the rest of the student body, confused. The school staff then took him to see the shaman who claimed that the cause of the illness was a curse from the spirits because his mother was never married; a bastard child must live to bear the consequences for his mother’s actions. To ease everyone’s uneasiness, the Shaman gave the boy a charm to ward off evils but later demanded money for the treatment. After that, the child  started showing more symptoms and his body weakened to the point where he could no longer go to school.

At this point in the story, the mother started sobbing hopelessly while clinging onto her son’s thin, frail hands. Desperation was clear in her eyes as she rumbled on in her native language, describing struggles she had gone through  which the translator could not fully report. The fourth time her son had a seizure was yesterday where he had to endure the seizure for almost five minutes, choking on his own tongue . Even after she begged, the shaman turned the the ill child away without a second thought. That was why she resorted to the last option - Khun Maaw Dum. 

The doctor asked to excuse himself outside where he stood there with his cigarettes, contemplating what to do. He was delighted at first to have heard about the young boy. It was his chance to save a life  and prove the shaman wrong. However, he had not  expected that the child would be in a life-threatening stage in an illness  that required  hospital equipment and careful oversight of the treatment. Hospitals were out of question since no one would dare send their child to one. The village consisted of mostly refugees, seeking for a safe home. If  they were caught undocumented by the Thai police, there would be no escape. On the other hand, it was beyond the doctor’s skill and knowledge to handle alone in this remote village. The illness would only grow worse , even if he could slow it down.

After running a quick check up on the little boy, he returned to the village to find people gathering in front of the shaman’s residence. The children ran towards them, yelling inaudible words to their teacher with delight. His translator turned to him with mixed expression, his mind filled with thoughts - someone had just offered to take care of all the expenses to cure the child.

The man who would pay  for the treatment was pursuing  the boy’s mother, attracted by her sweet looks and her determination to look after her children. Unlike many young women, she did not resort to prostitution but worked in the field with a basket filled with heavy goods on her back every day until her skin turned dark and her back grew slightly crooked. . Despite being shamed for having her first child before marriage and her husband leaving after the third, the man continued his chase.

In despair, a thought flashed into the doctor’s  mind: what if he let the shaman take charge?

The doctor was certain that there was no way the shaman could cure the young boy - not with his strange remedies and spells. It is for the greater good. It’s not like you can cure him, a little voice in his head said. The people chattered excitedly; after all, the shaman had never failed to cure anyone - he could  remove the curse and exorcise the demon  possessing the child! The shaman’s expression still remained calm; perhaps it was his imagination but the shaman seemed to struggle with having it in control. It was the perfect opportunity to reveal how the shaman was not, in fact, a skillful sorcerer. Then, the doctor could introduce proper healthcare to the village.

The translator, though,  seemed to know exactly what was going on in the doctor’s mind and  he did not take his eyes off the foreign man. The dark eyes  accused the doctor of being a killer, questioning  his morality. The  doctor turned away from him quickly, startled to realize that a part of him agreed with the translator.

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