Amish Health and Healing

by: J. L.

In a middle-class home in a medium-sized city, a young child wakes in the morning with a high fever. The child stays home from school and is in need of some medical attention, the mother calls their family doctor to set an appointment and takes her child in that morning. In an Amish farmhouse, another young child wakes in the morning with a high fever. The parents give the child any over-the-counter medicine they have and put their child in a cool bath, praying the fever will go down. The nearest telephone for an Amish family is across the cornfield and, if an appointment could be made, it would be difficult to arrange a trip to town because they would need to ask a non-Amish neighbor to take them, as the Amish do not own or drive cars (Hostetler 324). From these two illustrations, it is clear that the health c e needs of the Amish community are far different from the needs of mainstream society. The regionalization of health care facilities in the post-WWII era has dramatically influenced the drop in Amish utilization of modem medicine for various reasons. The health care structure is no longer compatible with the Old Order Amish community, office hours are not compatible to a labor- intensive lifestyle and an entire day can be lost in traveling to the doctor's office. By using examples from A Midwife's Story and The Budget, I will discuss why the modem health care system is not compatible with the health care needs of the Amish and what health care methods the Amish are utilizing in order to overcome this dilemma.

In the 1920's and 1930's several doctors would practice in a small rural town, hold office hours in the evenings, no appointment necessary, and make house calls when a person was too ill to travel. Another advantage of the way medicine used to be is that the doctor examined, treated and gave the patient medication to take before the patient left the doctor's office (Hartman lecture, 3/7/00). In comparison, the doctors of the 1990's have regionalized health care facilities to larger cities and hold strict daily hours, which require an advanced appointment. After the examination, today's patient must travel somewhere else to fill the prescription. The very thought of a doctor working after hours and even making house calls in the evenings is preposterous in this day and age. For most rural Americans the drive to a doctor's office is not too far, maybe 20 miles, but imagine the hassles of having to make driving arrangements with a neighbor! That short trip by car for most Americans translates into a long trip for most Amish families, which makes evident the fact that the health care "needs" of the Amish differ from the "needs" of mainstream society. In short, the modem health care system is not set up to deal with the differing needs of the Amish community, which in turn sends the Amish pursuing other medical techniques that better accommodate their lifestyle.

Prior to WWII, there was no difference between the medical utilization of the Amish and other rural Americans. However, since WWII, many changes have occurred in the medical care system. Doctors are beginning to use high-tech equipment, they specialize in a very narrow area of concentration, and they barely know much about the patients they examine beyond their medical conditions. The fact that medical professions are becoming less of a personal experience is causing many Amish to seek out alternative medicine practices that maintain a more personal kind of doctor/patient relationship, such as reflexologists and chiropractors. In The Budget, one women gives an account of another Amish woman's experience with an alternative practice: "Ida Yoder had an appointment with Mary Miller who is an experienced reflexotogist and has helped many, many ailments. Sister Ida is already learning the art" (Budget, 2/14/00). Along with getting treatments at alternative medical practices, some Amish folk begin their own practice to help others in the community and charge less for their services. It is clear that the Amish take the knowledge they gain from their health care experiences and use it to help others in their time of need, which is a direct reflection of their love and concern for all members of their community. In this way, the Amish shield themselves from the "worldly" knowledge of the health care system.

To mainstream society it appears as if the Amish do not utilize modem medicine because the Amish tend not to visit a doctor's office for what they consider minor illnesses or colds (Hostetler 324). Although the Amish do not make use of the health care system as regularly as mainstream society, the Amish have no prohibition against medical care in times of need. Their culture generally distrusts "worldly" knowledge and therefore scientific knowledge is used cautiously and only at necessary times. "Most of all an Amish man wants to protect his faith, keep his family close, keep his ways, keep humble before God, be a steward of the land, and make a living. If he needs a technology to allow him to continue, then maybe, he'll say, maybe he'll use it" (Armstrong 133). Mainstream society often does not question technology and takes the scientific word to be an absolute. However, the Amish are less accepting of this knowledge and turn to God, the church and their faith before making medical decisions. In A Midwife's Story, there is an excellent example of how the Amish approach medical decisions: "Rueben and Rebecca prayed, talked with each other, the minister, and the children, and decided that the baby had enough to endure without being out in the hands of strangers in a hospital where the family could only visit him" (Armstrong 147). The strong faith the Amish have in God and the church is a source of comfort, which many people in mainstream society can only imagine because an increasing percentage of Americans do not attend a church. This firm foundation in their religion causes the Amish to rely first on God to heal, where mainstream society would immediately turn to the health care establishment.

It seems clear that the differences between the Amish and mainstream society in the utilization of health care do not depend on religious convictions, but rather on how health care is set up in general. Modern medicine has not taken into account the labor-intensive lifestyle of many rural Americans, including the Amish. This is made evident by the many changes that have occurred in the health care establishment in the post-WWII era. It is disheartening to recognize that all people are not given an equal opportunity to utilize the technology of modern medicine because the health care establishment has not been geared to accommodate the rural lifestyle of the Amish. Although most Amish communities are no longer able to have the convenience of a rural doctor, it is encouraging to see that the individuals do seek out professional care in times of need.