I recently saw a wonderful documentary film called American Heart at the Minneapolis Film Festival.  I went to see the film because it dealt with an issue of interest to me – health care for refugees and immigrants.  While that was indeed the focus of American Heart, it dealt just as much with universal themes: end of life issues, family, resilience and how life unfolds in mysterious ways.

American Heart follows three patients at the HealthParters Center for International Health, a primary care clinic in St. Paul, over a 5 year period.  The “stars” of the show were Lem Thor, a former political prisoner from Cambodia, Patrick Junior, a Karen man from Burma, and Alex Gliptis, an Ethiopian refugee.  Alex and Patrick, in particular, had complicated medical problems (which became more complicated over the course of the 5 years).  Lem had liver cancer, related to chronic Hepatitis B, common in people who grew up in Southeast Asia (see related blog post).

From the health care perspective, some of the takeaways for me were:

  • The doctors and other health care providers in this clinic (whose mission is to care for refugees and immigrants) were compassionate and sensitive, but in the hospital, that was not universally true (some were, some weren’t).
  • Even in the clinic, it seemed like the visits were quite short and didn’t necessarily provide enough time for patients to really talk about what they were going through (except for Alex who was also seeing a mental health professional at the clinic) which in all three cases were possible imminent death.
  • This has been said many times before, but it was clear from the film that medicine is not an exact science and it did appear that decisions were often made without a great deal of deliberation.  Language barriers only exacerbate this. 

The human story, though, was what was really compelling to me.  Alex was an intellectual mechanic with a wry outlook, writing at least one autobiography (one titled “I”) and in constant grief over the loss of his beloved brother who died in political violence in Ethiopia; Patrick was a sweet, happy and optimistic man who wrote beautiful songs and played (and slept with) his guitar; Lem was a quiet and proud man who chose his own path. Despite having survived many hardships, these three men all had a strong will to live, which may have served them well.  They were all supported by loving families.  Human resilience seems to have played a role in how disease progressed or didn’t progress but to say any more would be a spoiler.

American Heart is on the film festival circuit now and is also being requested by medical training programs focusing on cross-cultural care.  While it certainly brings out many cross-cultural issues, it also illustrates issues about the medical system in general as well as the human condition and spirit.  Two thumbs up from this critic!

Click here to see a video trailer.