Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nov. 4, 2002
BY REID FORGRAVE
In an antiseptic room at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, smoke wafts around little Lupita Amador, a cancer patient. The smell of burning sage disturbs the hospital’s sterility. American Indian drumbeats and prayers surround the toddler and her family.
Even though she’s only 16 months old, they’re already talking about her dying.
Lupita has neuroblastoma, the most common childhood cancer. With tumors near her right adrenal gland, in the bone of her right leg and a golf-ball sized one behind her right eye, she only has a 50 percent chance of living, doctors say.
But her mother, Cathryn Amador, believes Indian ceremonies like burning sage will help prayers rise to the Creator. Doctors don’t object — they say faith is part of good medicine and part of the healing process.
Inside the room one May afternoon, Lupita starts convulsing in her mother’s arms. She turns blue, almost black. Her seizure is a reaction to chemotherapy, doctors say, and nurses give her oxygen and numerous injections to stabilize her.
Then Lupita’s temperature spikes to 103.7 degrees. Her parents think she will die, right here in the hematology and oncology unit. Her father, Jose, sings her a lullaby. In Lakota Indian tradition, when a baby is dying, a lullaby helps the baby pass without fear.
Lupita’s parents are waiting for doctors to take her for a brain scan when a spry 90-year-old man ambles in. He is John Lone Hawk Minerich, a Cherokee Indian healer who lives in Hot Springs. He’s been praying for Lupita and visits her often.
Cathryn Amador tells Minerich about her dreams from the past two nights — with rattlesnakes and white spiders, both signs of impending doom, she believes. She tells him she has performed rites of purification — burning certain herbs — rites that, until recently, have been banned from most hospitals.
Minerich walks over to Lupita’s father, who is holding the toddler in a chair. Minerich, eyes closed, says a prayer, then passes his hands over Lupita, starting at her shoulders, moving to her neck, not quite touching her, feeling for the cancer, he says.
Scientifically, the results are sketchy at best. But doctors say science doesn’t matter — the role of faith and hope in a hospital setting is indisputable. “There are lots of anecdotes about people giving up hope and dying the next week,” says Dr. David Becton, Lupita’s primary oncologist, who pushed for the hospital to permit the Amadors certain ceremonies inside the build- ing. “Whether there is scientific proof of [ceremonies like this] having an impact on a tumor is arguable. But it has an impact on how her family copes and how she copes with the tumor.
” It’s important to have hope, because something real and medical happens when people give up hope. “
That day in the hospital room, Cathryn Amador believes she saw a miracle.
Minerich feels a jolt around Lupita’s eyes, he says, caused by the energy in his hands. Then the jolt gets lighter… then lighter… then nothing.
Jose Amador feels a shiver down his spine. Moments later, Lupita’s fever is gone. By the end of the day, Lupita is a” happy little girl, “her mother says,” blowing kisses and playing peek-a-boo with the doctors. “
Cathryn Amador, of Gravette in Northwest Arkansas, is Lakota Indian, part of the Sioux nation.
Ministers of all religions are typically allowed into hospitals to bring patients hope for life or prepare them for the other side.
But for American Indians, it isn’t as easy as a priest who carries a Bible. Few people know about their customs, and many of their smoky ceremonies aren’t allowed in hospitals.
At Arkansas Children’s Hospital, open windows and fans keep the smoke from setting off alarms. Doctors and hospital safety officials let Cathryn light cedar and circle the smoke around her daughter for purification —” smudging, “her people call it. Smoke drifting into the air takes away negative energy and carries prayers, symbolically, up to the Creator. She burns sage and sweetgrass, too, in the hospital room, not too different than incense burned in a thurible during Catholic ceremonies.
American Indian officials believe Arkansas Children’s Hospital may be one of the first hospitals in the country to allow these ceremonies. Lupita has had hospital visits from Minerich as well as a renowned Lakota medicine man from Minnesota.
” Hospitals are in the business of healing, and part of that healing, we believe, comes from the divine Creator, “said Lee Standing Bear Moore, a storyteller with the Manataka tribe in Hot Springs who helped raise money to bring the medicine man from Minnesota in May.” In bringing medicine men to see little babies like Lupita, we are not only bringing the healing spirit of the Creator, but we are also renewing the energy of our heritage for the doctors and nurses who are helping Lupita. “
Only now, Moore said, are American Indians truly bringing their practices into hospitals. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, and the act said the government must protect and preserve the right of Indians to worship as they please through ceremonies and traditional rites.
But since those rites were suppressed for so long, Moore says, it took one generation to bring the spiritual knowledge to where it should be. More often now, especially near Indian reservations, hospitals are starting to allow native practices inside hospitals.
In Arkansas, where the U.S. Census says about 18,000 American Indians reside, Moore says it can be hard to gain acceptance in a mostly Christian world.
Minerich says he was born with the gift, but if he ever charges money for it, he will lose it. With Lupita, he says he can feel black spots, feel her cancers under the skin.
” This energy, you get it from God, “Minerich says.” I was born with this gift; I’m just like a medicine man. I get calls from people who have had a heart attack, I go and I help them. “
But Moore says mixing the Indian healing ceremonies with medical care brings nothing but benefits for the patients.
” You can see the absolute healing” from our rituals, Moore said. “We see people with severe cases of gout become healed. We’ve seen people with cancer become healed.”
Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader of the Sioux nation in South Dakota, says it is important to meld Indian rituals with conventional medicine. “Our message is to get people to go back to traditional medicine,” Looking Horse said. “Hospitals have a tough time with it because people don’t really understand our ceremonies.
” For a hospital in Arkansas, one that’s not on a reservation, to allow this is a big step in bridging the gap between our cultures. “
Lupita is her nickname, given to her by her Hispanic father. Her full name, Pte Tokahewin Amador, was given to her by an elder of the Lakota tribe. It means the” White Buffalo Calf Woman who dances to the beat of her own drum. “
It’s November. She’s 22 months old. Her cancer has shrunk — the tumor behind her right eye is half the size it was several months ago, and the other tumors are gone. But her head is bald from chemotherapy, her forehead oblong, and there’s a scar near her right eye.
Cathryn believes that because of her Indian heritage, members of her family have a special connection to spirits. Before Lupita was diagnosed with cancer, her 5-year-old sister would wake up from nightmares and say,” A monster is eating the baby. “
Lupita has been in and out of Children’s Hospital for nearly a year. She returns to Little Rock on Wednesday for a stem-cell transplant. She will receive high doses of chemotherapy that will, hopefully, wipe out the cancer. She will stay in the hospital for another three to six weeks, and then she will have to remain in Little Rock for up to three months for blood and platelet transfusions.
Minerich plans to keep visiting and keep praying.
If the transplant does not work, the odds are Lupita will die, doctors have told Cathryn.
Her child may yet die from cancer, but not in vain. Her mother believes Lupita is a milestone of religious freedom for American Indians.
” You have to have faith no matter what — I believe she will live, “her mother says, mentioning her dreams of Lupita at kindergarten age.” But if it is her time to go, one thing I would want is that her life and her illness made a difference. I hope she can help people realize we should go back to nature, go back to the basics of life. ”