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Spring 2014
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FIELD NOTES
 
A Sick Wind
An unexpected lesson in the cultural context of illness.


I drifted in and out of consciousness, trying hard to ignore the throbbing pain in my head. It was 5 a.m., day three of my med school summer project in Cambodia, and I was caught in the throes of a bad migraine. I had spent the night cooped up in the only bathroom in the house, plagued by the cyclic vomiting that usually accompanies my headaches. Exhausted, I’d finally stumbled back to bed—only to be shaken awake by the mother of my host family.

“You are very sick because you aren’t used to eating our food,” she said in Cambodian, speaking slowly so I could understand her. “I think we need to do something to help your stomach.”

She got up and strode into the kitchen. I, on the other hand, fell back and curled up in a fetal position.

My migraine had started a full 24 hours earlier—the result, as I would learn in medical school, of a hyperactive nervous system that releases a cascade of neurotransmitters at the slightest provocation. This chemical rush inflames the blood vessels surrounding the brain. First there is the headache: a pulsating headache that can last for days if untreated. Then comes a bewildering array of symptoms as the neurotransmitters move down to the brainstem: pallor, alternating sweats and chills, a crippling sensitivity to all sensory stimuli, and endless bouts of nausea and vomiting.

It’s these symptoms that always seem to be misinterpreted by those who have never had a migraine. In college my roommates assumed I was antisocial due to my tendency to spend weekends in bed with the shades drawn. Even my mother sees my symptoms as an act of cultural disobedience. “You wouldn’t be so sick if you listened to the Chinese doctor and stopped drinking ice water,” she would say. “Cold things aren’t good for Asian bodies.”

So when I woke with a throbbing headache just one day after arriving in Cambodia, I had a sinking feeling that my symptoms would somehow get lost in translation. Indeed, I would not be disappointed.

 

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