Amish Health: The Importance of Culture to Medical Treatment

by: Jeremy Jones

Throughout history, people have sought cures to sickness and disease via methods conditioned by the society in which they live. During the Middle Ages, Europeans depended on the medical advice of the local barber and coroner to cure their afflictions, which often centered on herbal applications. Native Americans, prior to the twentieth century, were reliant on traditional chanting remedies in addition to the newly prescribed therapies of the tribal medicine man. The Amish people of modern day America are no different as this unique subculture strives to cure the sick and diseased within the realm of community accepted means. By taking a detailed look at the methods utilized by the Amish to cure sickness and disease, one will come to appreciate the role culture plays in establishing medical treatment as well as the importance of health matters in Amish society.

One of the most common and historically based methods for curing the sick and diseased in Amish society is through the use of folk remedies. Folk or house remedies as it is often termed, have their roots in the Germanic ancestry of the Amish. Oral tradition has maintained a basic knowledge of various teas, powders, liniments, and foods used in Amish folk remedies for hundreds of years. However, as time goes by, more of these historical household cures are supplemented with more modem household remedies found in farm almanacs, newspapers, and Amish publications. Testimonials found in Amish publications such as The Budget are often granted credibility in the community barring any ruling against such practices by leaders of the church. One such testimonial can in fact be found in a local column in the January 22, 1992 issue of The Budget. In the column, an older Amishman writes of his sudden cure of bladder cancer: "So I called the doctor and told him I was going to try a natural remedy before I was going to have my bladder taken out .... I tried some drops, herbs, minerals, and vitamins and retesting two months later, the doctor said I was 50% better. Four months later, there was no sign of the cancer." Another testimony in The Budget describes a regimen of homeopathics, herbs, vitamins, and minerals to cure a case of skin cancer. Such remarkable testimonies to the power of home remedies is without a doubt a leading contributor to the insistence of folk remedies in Amish society.

Another application used to cure the sick and diseased also has its roots in the German ancestry of the Amish. Powwowing, also called sympathy curing, is often applied to cure the sick of the community in conjunction with various home remedies. The technique involves the use of chants, charms, amulets, and physical manipulations in order to restore the afflictions of the body (Hostetler 336). The prevalence of the method varies among many Amish communities as some have banned the practice altogether. Yet, the technique can be observed in many Amish settlements and seems to have found a foothold in the Amish lifestyle. Several examples of the technique are described in Joseph Yoder's true story, Rosanna of the Amish. In one scene, Bill Koiser is afflicted with what seems to be a painful case of pinkeye and seeks Rosanna to cure his ailment. Rosanna, confident of her ability to cure the infirmity, conducts a two day powwow session after which the pain disappears, much to the amazement of her patient. Such scenes play themselves out in numerous Amish communities and is an important method utilized by the Amish to cure sickness and disease.

Through the use of home remedies and sympathy curing the Amish have been able to limit their interaction with physicians of the mainstream. Thus, when it comes to health matters, the use of these techniques enables the Amish to remain separated from the world and amazingly self-sufficient, two very important ideologies of the culture. However, when serious or persistent health problems occur, the Amish realize the traditional means of the culture may be inapt in curing such ailments and thus seek a physician's appropriate care.

The Amish seek help from the medical establishment in nearby villages, towns, and cities when it is needed. Although there is an absence of any type of restriction in the Amish lifestyle pertaining to the use of the medical establishment, many are reluctant to seek professional medical care unless it is absolutely necessary. This stems from several reasons, one of which is the avoidance of the world, a strong Amish belief previously mentioned. Another reason is the high cost of medical treatment as the Amish do not believe in carrying health insurance. Having health insurance would be seen as associating with the world and therefore detrimental to the Amish faith. A third impediment is the often-arduous task of transportation. Because the Amish do not drive cars, they must take a buggy if the physician is in reasonable distance, or if farther away, ask a non-Amishman to drive them. Once these obstacles have been overcome, the Amishman or woman can then obtain appropriate medical treatment.

Once under the medical care of a physician, the Amish make no distinction between treatments they can and cannot receive based on their religious convictions. As noted author John Hostetler notes in his book Amish Society, "Nothing in the Amish understanding of the Bible forbids them from using modem medical services, including surgery, hospitalization, dental work, and chiropractic care" (323). As the various excerpts from The Budget demonstrate, the Amish have undergone a host of treatments including chemotherapy for cancer, treatment for food poisoning and therapy for arthritis.

Hopefully by now one can easily see how the Amish culture influences the way the people of this distinct subculture obtain medical treatment. Through the use of folk remedies as well as faith healing, the Amish are able to maintain that definite separation from the world that is a key characteristic of the culture. Self-sufficiency is also perpetuated throughout the culture with the use of these traditional methods in health care. Finally, the Amish seek professional care when faced with a grievous illness or bodily injury. For lesser ailments, hesitation is generally observed within the subculture as Amish men and women seek to avoid any reliance on the world, thus keeping with their Amish convictions. As one can see, the Amish are distinctly different in some regards to the mainstream culture when dealing with health matters. Upon contemplation, however, it is remarkable how similar they really are.

Works Cited

Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, 1993.