Mill City Metta – Lowell Health Center Redefines Culturally Appropriate Care

While some health care providers enlist sports and movie stars as spokespeople, Lowell’s Metta Health Center has, among others, a team of Buddhist monks clad in saffron robes. 

“The monks from all the temples in the area call it ‘our health center,’” says Sonith Peou, program director at MHC. “They tell people, ‘Go to our health center.’”

Lowell Community Health Center’s Metta Health Center opened its doors in October 2000 to provide culturally appropriate health care to the city’s Southeast Asian population. The MHC integrates Eastern medical practices such as meditation, massage, acupuncture, cupping and coining with Western medicine. Since opening, it has grown to serve refugees from countries such as Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia.

Like the Cambodians who came before them, new arrivals face the challenges of starting over, some carrying the visible and invisible scars of war and genocide.

Since 2003, MHC has received funding from the United Nations’ Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, allowing for increased medical care, individual and group therapy sessions, social services and case management for refugees.

“We understand all of them because we are one of them,” says Peou, who escaped Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, losing his parents and two siblings.

The concept for Metta (which means love, kindness or compassion in Buddhist Sanskrit) was born in the late 1990s, when Dorcas Grigg-Saito, then the CEO of Lowell Community Health Center (LCHC), noticed that few patients were Southeast Asian in a city with the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community.

L-r: Metta Health Center Program Director Sonith Peou; Dr. Zinabu Maxwell, lead clinician for primary care; Jennifer Shuart, LICSW, site manager for behavioral health services.

Discussions with members of the Cambodian community revealed a lack of understanding of the U.S. health care system.

“In Cambodia, you only go to the hospital when you are really sick; there is no such thing as preventative care.” Peou says. “The government pays for hospital care, but to see a private doctor you pay cash, and many people cannot afford that.”

When MHC opened and patients began coming in, providers found that the rate of Cambodians suffering from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension was three times greater than that of the general United States population due to a lack of preventative care, as well dietary changes as they ate more American food.

Additionally, some patients were silently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

“Mental health is not something talked about in the community — here or in Cambodia,” Peou says.

According to LCHC, 53 percent of Cambodian immigrants suffer from moderate to serious mental health problems, compared with 15 percent of the general population.

“I have been coming here a long time,” Sokal Vann, 67, of Lowell, says through an interpreter. “I like the people, and they help me a lot. They make everything easy.”

Vann arrived in the U.S. as a Cambodian refugee in 1985, settling in New York City.

“I cried all the time, didn’t talk, and stayed in my apartment,” she says, explaining that she found the city too large and intimidating.

“When I came to Lowell, I found help,” Vann says. “Now I don’t get scared. When I need help, I come here. The clinic is important.”

Vann enjoys attending weekly meditation sessions.

Mats and towels, dyed in warm pinks and crimson, are lined up in rows on an ornate rug in a dimly lit room tucked away at the end of a hallway. A radio and candles sit upon a table.

This is the meditation room, used by both patients and staff as a way to center themselves, bringing them more in touch with their bodies and minds.

At MHC, you are as likely to be prescribed meditation sessions as you are medications.

“We can learn from both sides,” says Dr. Zinabu Maxwell, the lead clinician for primary care. “It is important to integrate Eastern medical systems into care for refugees and immigrants, and help them maintain their beliefs and traditions.”

Acupuncture, massage, coining, cupping and prayer have been useful in building trust between patients and practitioners, says clinical social worker Jennifer Shuart, site manager for behavioral health services.

“With refugees, there is such a loss of identity. If you don’t recognize their healing preferences, that’s another loss of identity,” she says.

Maxwell says treating people from a variety of cultures and life experiences has made her a better doctor, forcing her to listen more and communicate more clearly due to language and cultural barriers.

Peou envisions a positive future for the MHC, which has grown from seeing 1,000 patients in 2002 to about 5,200 annually now.

“We will continue to provide the best care for Southeast Asians and new arrivals,” Peou says. “They have all experienced similar trauma, and we will do what we can to make them feel welcomed and meet their needs physically, emotionally and socially.”

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