Claiming the Right To Health

“My heart can’t be cured is because I’m too poor to pay my son’s school tuition—and that is breaking my heart” (Korean village woman)

Mrs. Kim was a Korean traditional herbalist, the kind that people went to for every kind of ailment—mental, physical, social. She did not stand out among the older village women dressed in puffy, loose pants that blew around her slim legs like noisy flags when she walked. Her hands had the firm clasp of someone used to gathering heavy firewood and pulling stubborn weeds out of gardens.

Her most valuable inheritance from her late husband was the knowledge of traditional medicine that she picked up as his lifelong assistant. When I met her, she was running a grocery store slash herbal shop to support her son, who had just finished his second year at Yonsei University. Villagers turned to her sage advice on treating arthritis, the common cold, and much more. If children were doing poorly in school, Mrs. Kim offered parents words of comfort and hints on how to motivate them. When babies refused to breastfeed, she visited the family and helped sooth tensions about who was to blame. If she couldn’t help patients with herbs, she made sure that they visited the local health clinic.

In brief, she was a rural social worker, physical therapist, herbalist, and psychiatrist combined. I dubbed her the village social doctor because she could cure many of the community’s social ills.

However, Mrs. Kim herself was ill. She had been in and out of the hospital for treatment of serious hypertension. When I asked about her health, she threw up her arms in exasperation. She said that many doctors had prescribed medicines, but not one had been successful. When she used herbal medicines and acupuncture, the symptoms just returned. She confided in me that after many months, she finally discovered the cause of her illness: her son’s school fees. Every year, a few months before his tuition was due, her condition would worsen. She would have trouble sleeping because of her worries. She also stopped paying for her own medication in order to save for her son’s needs.

“That is why modern medicine can’t cure me,” she explained. As long as she was poor and had to support her son, she didn’t think she would get better.

Too often, the relationship between poverty and health is reduced to simple solutions like building another health clinic for the poor. If Mrs. Kim is to be truly cured, she must have access to anti-poverty programs and subsidies for school fees as well as affordable medical services. When she recovered, she would have more money to invest in her son’s education.

At the household level, parents’ health and children’s education are intimately linked, and mothers are often the ones making the connections. If we improve women’s incomes and provide socioeconomic support, we will very likely raise the living standard of an entire family. At the meetings on the Sustainable Development Goals, we all must become the world’s social doctors focusing on social as well as physical and mental health.