Guinea Pigs and Shamans

Two weeks into my Urban/Rural comparative health, and I finally had the chance to see the rural side of the Ecuadorian healthcare system. It involved a shaman, some oily rocks, rhythmic chants, and a (briefly) living guinea pig.

I had spent my first two weeks in bustling Quito, the  vibrant capital city of Ecuador, shadowing doctors in standard western practice hospitals. It was a great experience watching surgeries, learning how to conduct patient interviews and examinations in Spanish, and picking doctors’ brains about various specialties and their lifestyle implications. In all, an incredible experience, but not unlike those I had in Chile last year, or those I would have been able to have in the States if I had remained at home this summer.

In our meeting with Quito’s CFHI medical director, we were warned that the traditional medical methods practiced by portions of Ecuador’s indigenous population could be quite shocking to the unprepared—Ecuadorian and foreigner alike. But even then, we had no idea what was in store when we stepped through the door into the Jambi Huasi alternative clinic in the town of Otavalo. After getting a tour and basic overview of the services offered by the ~10 bed indigenous clinic, we were notified that a limpia con cuy was about to start downstairs, and the four of us were bustled into the room to quietly observe. A limpa con cuy directly translates to “wash with a guinea pig”, and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, only about a million times less cute.

The patient and shaman, both weather-wizened older ladies still spry and full of energy, chatted amicably while the former disrobed. Once she was down to her undergarments, the limpia began. Still distrustful of Western medicine, some indigenous people maintain the belief that a “copy”—for lack of a better term—of one’s malady can be transferred into the body of a guinea pig and that the guinea pig can be examined to decide on the best course of action. This transfer is made by vigorously scrubbing the patient’s body up-and-down with a live guinea pig. The scrub continues, with the poor animal flopping like a rag-doll by its neck and feet until its squeaking subsides and eventually stops altogether.

Once the cuy had stopped squeaking, our patient re-clothed herself and pulled up a chair to hover over the shining steel washbasin procured by the shaman. With a few deft cuts, the shaman had the cuy skinned and disemboweled, leaving only the thoracic organs, liver, and kidneys. Setting aside her knife, the shaman spent more than 30 minutes poring over of animal’s remains with the patient, pointing out abnormalities and explaining their significance within the patient’s body. As the two conferred mostly in the indigenous Quichua language, we weren’t able to decipher much, but in the end it appeared that the guinea pig’s entrails suggested a pending renal failure in the patient. She stood up and gravely thanked the shaman, nodded to us, the pale foreign observers, and exited with dignity.

As an outsider, I was initially shocked at the seemingly pointless, wasteful and overly brutal nature of the ritual. But then my conversations with the shaman led me to believe that she wasn’t a mean person. And her stolid belief in the worth of her ritual, combined with the complete, faithful confidence of the patient, forced me to take pause and try to shed my cultural bias, to try to understand that the ritual is important and valid from the point of view of the believers. So although I still cannot personally understand the value of the ritual, I have a hard time condemning the continuation a practice that has been passed on by the Quichua ancestors, generation to generation for thousands of years.

After that eye-opening experience, I returned to Quito to head off to Chone, the coastal town where I will be continuing the rural portion of my comparative program. For the next two weeks I will be shadowing with five of my peers in the much more traditional, though somewhat undersupplied, hospital Napolean Davida. I’m very excited to get back into the western hospital setting and to continue working to grow within and understand the healthcare system in place here.