Put An Herb On It- Class Explores Attitudes Towards Health Across Cultures

Story and Photo by Taylor Nichols

Dominique Coulet du Gard teaches the Cross-Cultural Medicine Class at Whatcom Community College
Dominique Coulet du Gard teaches the Cross-Cultural Medicine Class at Whatcom Community College

The Cross Cultural Medicine class at Whatcom Community College is sought after by students headed in a multitude of different directions. Whether students are waiting to get into the nursing program or planning to be anthropologists, they will find the topics of health care and ethnic studies combined in this course.

An introduction to medical anthropology, the class covers different diseases and conditions as well as different healing approaches from around the world, and healthcare options available in the US, among other topics.

“I like to include a lot of different methods of healing from various cultures,” said Dr. Dominique Coulet du Gard, who has taught the class since 2007 when she said she revived it. “A lot of people don’t realize anthropology is so scientific.”

Some of the topics covered include naturopathy and homeopathy, evolution, methods of disease prevention in other countries, culture bound syndromes such as anorexia and bulimia, midwifery and acupuncture.

Coulet said the course was originally started by Barbara Rofkar in the 1980s, and was designed for those going into the nursing field.

After Rofkar left the college, the class “died out for decades,” and was reevaluated and added as a course again when Coulet decided she wanted to teach the class, more for the anthropological side rather than the medical, she said.

While cross cultural medicine is not required for any certifications or programs, Coulet said that the class is highly sought after and recommended. The class runs from 5:10 to 7:30, and is completely full.

Many of her students plan to pursue careers in anthropology or medicine, which Coulet said makes for a classroom full of “amazingly high-caliber students. It’s not unusual for me to give tests that are quite hard and a large percentage [of students] get A’s.”

Coulet said she uses a video clip from the T.V. show “Grey’s Anatomy” in which a Hmong shaman comes to a hospital to perform a healing ritual on a Hmong woman who needs surgery. Coulet said this video “breaks the ice and gets people thinking,” and compares different cultural styles of medical treatment.

“They’re bringing with them from all over different religious beliefs and different ways of healing, and along with that different ideas of being healthy,” Coulet said.

Trinity Banks, a student in the class, said that Coulet’s enthusiasm and evident knowledge of her material is one of her favorite parts of the class.

“She inspires you to want to learn more,” Banks said. “With all these young minds she’s planting seeds that are opening cultural diversity.”

Banks aspires to work in an obstetric fistula clinic in Eritrea. An obstetric fistula is a complication of childbirth that forms a hole between the birth and either the bladder or rectum. This condition mostly affects women in developing countries where Banks said they are often ostracized from their communities as a result.

“I wish I’d taken this class 20 or 30 year ago,” Banks said. “I think my education and career would have taken a whole different turn. This is teaching me about what I want.”

Coulet’s interest in and knowledge about her subject is apparent in the rigorous curriculum she designed as well as her attitude towards her class and students.

“I love all kinds of classes, but there’s something special about this one, and it’s like that every quarter,” said Coulet.

Coulet said she did fieldwork in Africa when she was in the process of getting her master’s degree and doctorate in Anthropology and African Studies. During this time she took a first aid and CPR course and said that she benefitted largely from it and believes everyone should be required to take courses like these.

Because the nursing department at Whatcom is so strong, Coulet said the department needed this kind of class. She worked alongside the head of the department to develop the curriculum and internationalize it, because it had been more “focused on American culture and western bio-medicine.”

Dr. Coulet said she also changed the class from a 3-credit course to a 5-credit course, partially because there was so much more material to cover than a 3-credit course and partially due to the number of students interested in the course.

Coulet said that her favorite portion of the class is the section on childbirth, because many of her students are older women who have had children. “I really enjoy when students can interact” and get into discussions about the material, she said. “An amazing number of students leave the course wanting to be midwives” or interested in naturopathy or another topic covered in the course.

While her class doesn’t get much fieldwork in, Coulet du Gard said she invites guest speakers like Maryanne Ward, the president and treasurer of a non-profit organization called Ghana Together, to talk to the class.

Ghana Together is an organization that Coulet said works on projects in Ghana. Ward discussed some of the medical aspects of working in Ghana, such as a project that Ghana Together is working on with Engineers Without Borders that involves implementing a waterless, composting toilet at a Catholic Junior High School in Ghana. Coulet said this project will eliminate a large amount of bacteria.

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