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AWARE Ink Newsletter

December Leadership Library Feature

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman

Each month AWARE’s leadership team comes together in person to collaborate and coordinate across service lines, connect and learn from one another and model an effective organizational culture. During each meeting, the team sets aside time to explore ideas from thought leaders across varying industries within the context of our own programs and services. They have embraced the concept “leaders are readers” and are enthusiastic about continuous learning, growth and development. 

Last month, we gave you some insight on building trust within teams in Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. This month, we’ll cover The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne tells the story of a Hmong child who has epilepsy. The book emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural communication by illustrating the stark contrast between Hmong tradition and western medicine.

The Hmong child, Lia Lee, had her first seizure when she was just 3 months old after her sister slammed a door. Her parent’s cultural beliefs had taught them that the noise of the door had caused Lia’s soul to flee, a condition they call, “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” The Hmong believe that people who have seizures are special and are often chosen to be shamans later in life.

Lia’s parents were leery of western medicine. Nonetheless, they remained concerned for her safety despite their traditional healing methods. After some thought, they committed to “a little medicine and a little neeb.” In Hmong, a neeb is like a shaman that could be used to call back Lia’s soul.

As you might imagine, the two vastly different approaches clashed with one another. The western doctors saw Lia’s condition solely as a neurological disorder. Matters were further complicated by a lack of interpreters fluent in the Hmong language. The doctors proceeded with a strict medical regimen, but Lia’s parents did not understand the connection between a seizure and its effect on the brain, nor the medication and its numerous side effects.

After many failed attempts at communication, Lia’s parents were deemed non-compliant as Lia suffered repeated seizures. Concerned for the child’s safety, Child Protective Services (CPS) placed Lia in foster care. This separation was traumatic for her and her parents.

After some training with a social worker over several months, Lia and her parents were finally reunited. Her seizures, however, had worsened and she eventually had a grand mal seizure that would not stop. When it did, Lia was left brain-dead as a result of septic shock.

Lia’s doctors assumed she would die shortly after, but she didn’t. She lived another twenty-six years with her parents who continued to care for her. They held a traditional ceremony each year to ease her suffering.

This book is a great example of AWARE’s UCC Principle “I’m OK, You’re OK,” which establishes the premise that each individual and family has a set of personal and cultural values. Whether these values are unique to the family or shared with a larger cultural group, they are important assets. We believe the diversity of personal and cultural values is a cause to celebrate. When we recognize individual differences, we help build on basic strengths.

After reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, AWARE’s Leadership Team couldn’t agree more with the importance of cross-cultural communication.

Have you read any great leadership books? We’d love to know what you’re reading! Let us know by sending an email to

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