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For Those of Other Cultures, Old Cures Persist

June 15, 1989|MARIA NEWMAN | Times Staff Writer

The faraway look was in her eyes again, her proud, lined face somber at the end of another tale of years ago, of uncles I never met, who died before they reached their teen-age years.

"What did he die of, Grandmother?" I would ask her--about Nicolas, or Catarino or any of the rest of them.

A blink of her eyes, and she was back to the present again.

" Pues , well, he hurt his leg one day, and it never got better," she would say in her deep but soft Spanish. "By the time we summoned the doctor, they had to cut off the leg, and then he never recovered. And then he died."

It was like that with many of my grandmother's 13 children. By the time they settled in Corpus Christi, Tex., in the 1940s, after years of roaming the Texas and New Mexico farm fields either as laborers or tenant farmers, only five of them were left. Five children and my grandmother. Everyone else, including my grandfather, had died along the way--from disease, injuries to their limbs, fevers that never subsided.

Illnesses that don't kill people in this day and age. They did in 1940s rural Texas among farm laborers, among people with little or no education, people who lived where doctors didn't travel. And now, chicken pox has killed a little girl in Orange County.

I was reminded of my grandmother when I read about the Navarrete family of Fullerton, whose 5-year-old daughter, Sandra, died of complications from chicken pox in late March. The parents, who are from Mexico, said they did not seek a doctor's care for Sandra because they didn't know where they could take her. Florencia Navarrete and her children joined her husband here in January. They speak no English, and the family budget is slim.

By the sixth day of her illness, the girl's symptoms had become pronounced. She died as an uncle was driving her to a hospital in Long Beach.

There were questions after her death, an investigation as to how such a thing could happen here in Orange County and even the possibility of criminal negligence charges against the parents, although this week the district attorney's office finally announced it would not prosecute.

Shortly after the girl's death, an official of the county's Health Care Agency was quoted in one newspaper report as saying: "There is no reason for this to happen in America."

But it does happen today, just as it happened years ago.

True, Orange County is hardly rural anymore. And some might say that medical care is plentiful and accessible. But that is not the point.

The point is that in this country, now as well as in decades past, people are depending on other types of cures and solutions for health problems, either because they put their faith in something else or because medical care is out of their economic reach or beyond their knowledge of a new culture--or a combination of all these reasons.

It was not a matter of the Navarretes' not caring enough for their child.

Florencia Navarrete is from a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where few people have family doctors. "We relied on herbs, or home remedies," she explained in a recent interview. Since this tragedy and its publicity, social workers and neighbors have helped her to realize that medical help is more accessible here.

"I feel as if I have lost one arm, and I don't want to lose the other one, so I am fighting very much for (the health of) the children I still have," she told me.

Florencia is learning about modern medicine and how it can help her family. Now she must place that knowledge somewhere alongside her belief in other remedies.

My grandmother was born in this country. But even for her, there were few options when it came to health care for her children. Faith in prayer and natural medicines got them through one illness or another, or sometimes it did not.

For our mother, there were choices. Sometimes our father would drive us all the way across town to see Dr. Helen Woods, the red-haired doctor with the undersize, colorful chairs and children's books in the waiting room. Other times, we would see El Senor , the man who was the curandero premier in my city when I was growing up. Once I had a terrible fever, and my parents paid a visit to El Senor in the evening with the entire family in tow.

El Senor had set up shop in his home, and I remember pastel-colored walls--blue or green--in the room where "patients" waited to see him. A sign in Spanish warned women not to visit him without their husband's consent--a primitive precaution against malpractice suits, perhaps.

When it was our turn, my mother took me into a little room lit only by candles, some of them in blue jars, and El Senor sat among pictures and statues of saints. I remember him listening patiently as my mother recited my symptoms in Spanish, and I remember his soothing and authoritative voice. And what he prescribed to me that day remains my favorite cure ever: She was to feed me peaches boiled in water with honey.

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