Samoan Traditional Healers: Should we be concerned?

The first time I came across the phenomena of traditional healing was three years ago. I was a new graduate from the University of Otago and I had just started working for Samoa Rugby Union. At the time we were preparing for the IRB (as it was called then) Junior Rugby World Cup held in France so it was all very busy and exciting.

Many of the challenges I faced were ones that I expected; I needed to massage 30 people every single day or else the world would end, or I needed to wave the magic wand granted to me by my fairy godmother and make day old injuries disappear into thin air. I expected all of it and handled it like a boss.

One day a young Manu hopeful came to see me for pain he felt in his groin. I quickly realised that the anatomical integrity of the hip itself had not been compromised. The cause of the pain came from a swollen inguinal lymph node due to an infected cut on his foot. He also complained of pain and chills which was typical of an infection. Our team doctor prescribed the proper course of rest and medication to combat the infection.

He disappeared after that for months and came back with a foot that resembled an American football only slightly larger. When I asked him what happened he said his fofo or traditional healer had “soli”d his foot. This is a type of massage that requires the therapist to physically and repetitively stomp (soli) on the affected area. He was also told not take any medication as it got in the way of the “spirituality of the process”. He was assured without a doubt that he would have a speedy recovery and that he would be at 100% functional capacity for trials.

The foot was so deformed that I knew the infection had spread to the bone and he needed intravenous antibiotics straight away. I told him we were going to the hospital and the kid said he was fine (bless him, quaking and looking very sick, such a strong boy) I told him he could lose his foot or at worst die – if this was untreated and proceeded to call his parents. Of course the parents had complete faith that their son was cured and that the deformity was due to an after effect of the treatment he had received from the traditional healer,  much to my dismay.

After threatening his position within the training squad, he was convinced (I can literally hear all the consent issues this is going to raise-cry me a river don’t care). He spent a good two weeks in the hospital being treated for severe septicaemia (blood poisoning from lots of toxins from lots of bacteria in his system) and they were able to save his foot.

I continued to face similar challenges throughout my 3 years at SRU: people kept getting their injuries and boils massaged which of course resulted in longer recovery times and even longer return to sports times.

Worse still I was challenged at every turn on why I didn’t massage boils and injured tissue. Even after running multiple educational sessions, this belief paradigm surrounding massage as it seemed synonymous with fofo (as we know it is more synonymous with solution) as the miraculous cure to all man’s ailment remained stoically ingrained in many of the athletes and dare I say it, even in the coaching staff.

My sister who is a medical doctor and my confidante working in the Emergency Department has very similar stories. Sometimes she is frustrated with people here in Samoa because it seems that the hospital is the very last resort for most people and traditional healers the first – which is ok if they didn’t almost always turn up half way to death’s door.

I want to bring light to the issue because it is one I feel requires public note.

I want people in Samoa to understand that Medicine and medical sciences, as imperfect as they seem, run on a system of research and review. Every clinician diagnoses and treats on three principles: the underlying proposed science, the clinical research that exists for that condition, and the clinical experience of the clinician. Data from thousands of clinicians and studies from all around the world is collected and methodological processes of reasoning out what ails a patient are always being researched and renewed for the purpose of improving patient care. The research provides standards and regulations to ensure that patients are safe.

My experience and the many experiences of the medical doctors I have spoken to express the same thematic statement: traditional healing methods contradict medical interventions and most times the reverse is also true.

I am certain that most traditional methods of healing especially for cancer and boils are contraindicated in physiotherapy.

To be fair I decided to do a little research into the literature about traditional healing in Samoa and as expected: super limited. The earliest written account that I could find was an excerpt from Dr. Arthur Whistles book Samoan Herbal Medicine that quoted directly from the Samoan Journals of John Williams from 1830-1832 by Richard Moyer where he describes the traditional Samoan Healer or Taulasea.

Williams wrote that the health of a Samoan individual is comprised of a balance of four relationships; the individuals’ relationship with himself, with the environment, with the community and with the spirits.

A problem with any of these relationships will cause the person to fall ill and the taulasea is one to determine where the imbalance existed, remedied the situation and cure the ill. The best example given by the author is that of a young man who defiled the resting place of his ancestors. He fell sick but the taulasea was able to find the reason, have the young man confess his treason clean the mess he made and regained health. Of course the taulasea is also skilled in the use of poultices and salves from herbs in the treatment of bodily maladies. They seem to communicate with spirits directly where required.

The methods of traditional healers nowadays seems to have deteriorated quite a bit to massaging with leaves and mixing various concoctions to drive out spirits in which it seems is required in ALL cases.

To my horror I found that in Samoa, traditional healers were categorised as Allied Health Professionals under the Allied Health Act 2014, the very same act that regulates and mandates practise and professional conduct for Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Optometrists and Speech Language Therapists. The very same group of people whose methodology not only contradict medical practises but causes actual harm to patients.

I wonder how the Ministry of Health plan to regulate the professional practise and conduct of a field that has no governance in terms of practise?

If I suddenly decide that I am a traditional healer –  am I one?

The danger lies in the fact that people will listen to these individuals who could be dishing out the most quack cures that could worsen medical conditions immensely.

I feel this is an affront to anyone who has had formal medical training. It is irresponsible  to allow people to practise something that has no structure and cannot be regulated and most importantly directly impacts people’s health outcomes.

It is my hope that whoever reads this will at least take a moment to employ some basic brain power and make an informed decision. I always encourage my patients to take responsibility for their own health.

Take the time to get to know what it is that your body needs to maintain or become healthy, from actual professionals whose degrees are valid. At the end of the day, no one is responsible for your health but you.

The views expressed herein are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.

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