Lia was carried by Foua or another older member of the family on the back in a nyias, an apron shaped baby carrier that Foua had embroidered and ornamented with bright colors and fuzzy pink pom-poms. They preferred it to the pediatric wheelchair. “Lia was almost seven. For more than two years, her doctors had been waiting for her to die, and her parents had been confounding them with their ability to keep her alive. Although Lia was not dead, she was quadriplegic, spastic, incontinent, and incapable of purposeful movement. Her condition was termed a ‘persistent vegetative state.’ “ When the author first saw her, she couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. Her parents called it her plig, or soul. She had come home without a normal temperature, with irregular breathing, and no gag reflexes. Within days, all of those problems were resolved. The doctors attributed it to reduced swelling in her brain while her parents attributed it to the herbal infusion with which they bathed their daughter.
They even eventually yanked out the feeding tube and started squeezing formula into her mouth with a baby bottle. Neil and Peggy made sure the family received large amounts of Similac meant to be dispensed as free samples for new mothers. One thing Medi-Cal refused to pay for was a pediatric hospital bed. The doctor who made the decision said the Hmong sleep on the floor anyway so they didn’t need it. Jeanine Hilt went berserk when she heard this, and she called the doctor a racist. She finally found a medical supply house that was willing to give the bed to Lia for free. Ironically, Foua and Nao Kao put Lia in bed with them and she never used it.
The first time Lia returned to MCMC for a check-up, it was a very emotional moment for Neil Ernst. He began to cry when he talked to Foua and apologized for what had happened to Lia. Foua willingly embraced him and actually thanked him for taking care of Lia. Nao Kao just scowled and remained silent. He had never stopped being angry at the hospital and everyone who worked there. “In Foua’s eyes, ‘the husband and wife doctors’ were guilty not of the mortal sin of destroying her daughter but of the lesser sin – a sin of omission – of going on vacation and leaving Lia in the wrong hands.”
As the months passed, Lia became, in some cockeyed sense, a radiantly vital child. Her brain damage had ended her epilepsy and as she grew taller and with her obligatory soft diet, she was no longer obese. As Peggy said, “She was perfect. A perfect little vegetable.” Also, to the hospital staff, her parents were transformed from abusers to model caregivers. Lia was always immaculate and beautifully dressed. She was constantly touched and loved by her parents and her siblings. However, to the Lees, their daughter had changed utterly, but their behavior as parents had not changed in the slightest. In addition, all the clamoring of MCMC of authority figures telling the Lees they were not good parents went silent, and all court orders were lifted. The Lees, though, still continued to fear that their daughter might once again become government property. Foua, therefore, stayed with Lia twenty-four hours a day to protect her from the police. She believed, like other Hmong, that deformities are the consequences of past transgressions on the part of the parents and this must be borne with equanimity and treated with kindness as a means of expiation.