The patient in Room 328 had diabetes and hypertension. But when Va Meng Lee, a Hmong shaman, began the healing process by looping a coiled thread around the patient’s wrist, Mr. Lee’s chief concern was summoning the ailing man’s runaway soul.

“Doctors are good at disease,” Mr. Lee said as he encircled the patient, Chang Teng Thao, a widower from Laos, in an invisible “protective shield” traced in the air with his finger. “The soul is the shaman’s responsibility.”

At Mercy Medical Center in Merced, where roughly four patients a day are Hmong from northern Laos, healing includes more than IV drips, syringes and blood glucose monitors. Because many Hmong rely on their spiritual beliefs to get them through illnesses, the hospital’s new Hmong shaman policy, the country’s first, formally recognizes the cultural role of traditional healers like Mr. Lee, inviting them to perform nine approved ceremonies in the hospital, including “soul calling” and chanting in a soft voice.

The policy and a novel training program to introduce shamans to the principles of Western medicine are part of a national movement to consider patients’ cultural beliefs and values when deciding their medical treatment.

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