Laos, Southeast Asia
Mid 1960s to 1997
Anne Fadiman - She is the author and narrator of the book whose experiences with the Lia and her family are re-told in intimate and tragic detail. She learns while others do not the importance of understanding the culture of the patient in order to properly treat his illness.
Lia Lee - She is the epileptic Hmong child who is at the center of this story. She eventually ends up in a vegetative state, because understanding her from the perspective of the whole patient was ignored.
Foua Yang and Nao Kao Lee - They are Lia’s parents who love her very much and become totally committed to her care even after she enters the vegetative state. However, they are partially to blame, but nowhere nearly as much to blame for their child’s medical condition as the doctors who treated her.
Neil Ernst & Peggy Philp - They are Lia’s main doctors at the Merced Community Medical Center and unlike most of the physicians there, are open to understanding the Hmong culture. However, they never understand the concept of the soul in healing illnesses and for them, the bottom line is always about life.
Jeanine Hilt - She is the social worker who makes Lia her personal cause. She fights against the medical establishment whenever she can on Lia’s behalf and truly cares for the Hmong as a culture.
Dan Murphy - The family practice resident that was on the duty in the emergency room at MCMC the first time Lia was brought in for treatment. He is generally acknowledged to be the one who was the most interested in and knew the most about Hmong when they first came to Merced.
Bill Selvidge - MCMC’s former chief resident, he was Anne Fadiman’s old friend and the one who first told her about the Hmong of Merced. He was often more understanding of the concept of the culture of the patient as part of his cure.
May Ying Xiong - Fadiman’s interpreter and cultural broker, she helped her cross numerous barriers into the Hmong community and the Lee family.
Sukey Waller - She introduced the author to the Hmong elders and other important people of the Hmong community.
Blia Yao Moua & Jonas Vangay - They are two Hmong men who very generously took the time to teach the author what it means to be Hmong. They are still answering her questions two decades later.