Medicine, as a cultural force that shapes individual lives, today holds a centrality comparable only to theology in the Middle Ages. In 2001 healthcare costs accounted for 14.1% of the U.S. total output of goods and services (GDP). A similar percentage of the American population had no health insurance. Expenditure so vast and so uneven suggests that healthcare systems have a massive, often unseen impact upon cultures and lives. What happens in different cultures when a person passes into the kingdom of the ill? What specific historical significance accrues to certain diseases such as TB, cancer, or HIV/AIDS? How is the individual experience of illness constituted in part through an impersonal field of caregivers, insurance companies, lawyers, advertisers, and policy makers? When do everyday medical events such as pain or end-of-life care raise ethical issues as significant as the outcry surrounding abortion, cloning and stem cell research? Where does illness or medical disability intersect with the postmodern culture of gym-fit, surgically enhanced bodies? The ultimate aim of the course is to explore from multiple viewpoints the central, intertwined, biological and cultural experiences we call illness.
Hands-On Saigon! is a non-profit community organization that engages in a series of projects that take as their mission improving the health and well-being of children, of the elderly, and of minority populations, such as the Hmong people. We will meet with Project Director (and former SAS student) Deann Henry, starting with a seminar session aboard the ship. Ms. Henry is arranging encounters with local people, the details of which are still under negotiation. Expect some surprises! The encounters will provide maximum opportunity for you to ask questions that pertain directly and indirectly to our exploration of the narratives constructed around health and illness.
Vietnam, rebounding after a long history of war and suffering, is a country where as much as half the current population of 90.5 million live on less than $2 a day, and many on less than $1. There is still a great need for assistance for the poor, disadvantaged and disabled, in which Hands-On Saigon (HOS) has been active since 1996. Their programs, in numerous provinces of Vietnam, both north and south, have focused on the needs of some of the more overlooked and disregarded people; those in remote rural areas as well as some in the centers of the busiest cities. HOS current projects include, among others, helping Agent Orange victims, donating livestock to struggling families, harvesting rainwater, promoting computer literacy, supporting the children’s cancer hospital, and providing free medical check-ups and medicine to ethnic minorities living in rural, difficult-to-access mountainous areas.
Our academic objective—based on the educational trio of related and at times compatible options, “knowledge-skill-experience”—is to share the experiences that Ms. Henry arranges and to learn from these encounters what specific or generic narratives emerge in a country where the basic needs for human health and well-being differ so markedly—or do they?—from the needs and narratives we learn to recognize in the West.