A friend suggested I meet this highly respected traditional healer in the Boeng Kak slum area of Phnom Penh. One of my goals was to have a talisman made to protect me on the journey back home. The other was to explore the role of a traditional healer in Khmer culture. As a nurse, I am always facinated to learn about different ways of healing, and this was an opportunity I just could not pass on.
When I walked into his home I was startled by the contrast between my expectations and my reality. There laying before me cachectic, sick and hooked up to a lipid IV infusion was this revered healer my friend had told me about.
He told me that the doctor had come by earlier that morning and started the lipid infusion before leaving him to fend for himself. I was cringing inside thinking of all the potential complications that could be. Every time I travel I inevitably struggle between being a photographer and being a nurse. It is scenes like this that I struggle with years after encountering them.
I was traveling with a fellow photographer who was also a pharmacist and I recall us both looking at each other with pained expressions on our faces. Remembering that “normal” is relative to where you are can be a very difficult thing at times. Though we expressed concern at his state he dismissed our worries and beckoned us closer into the room..
He quickly got down to the business of making me a talisman; a process that begun with inscribing magical spells onto a piece of lead.
When I asked if it was possible for me to see the magical spells he held up the piece of lead and showed me his scribes.
So worn down and fatigued, he was unable to complete making the talisman so he handed it to his wife for her to complete the process of making it into a bracelet.
She rolled the sheet of lead, spells facing inward over a bracelet of red string.
She gently bent and curved the lead, molding it into its final form....my bracelet.
She handed it back to him to whisper and blow magic into it before she wrapped it around my wrist.
My curiosity got the better of me and I politely asked him what his “illness” was. He told me he was having stomach cramps but that the western medicine was helping. When asked if he knew what the cause was he stated that he believed it was the curse from another traditional healer who was envious of him and his power. He said he had no qualms about mixing traditional and western medicine to fight this curse because he knew that his magic was strong enough to fight back.
I walked away from this experience with a better appreciation for how healing doesn't have to be either or. Healing doesn't always look like I expect it to look; even when i am an expert in a certain way of healing. And that sometimes, the patients belief in the healing powers of a form of therapy is as strong or stronger than the therapy itself.