Doctors at a health clinic in Lowell, Massachusetts, had a problem — their exam rooms reminded refugee patients of torture chambers. The stethoscopes, the blood pressure cuff squeezing your arm — they looked like the torture devices used on their families, during Cambodia’s genocide.
Sonith Peou was just 24 when the Khmer Rouge pounded on the door of their family home, and took his father away for execution. Now 63, he’s a program director at the Lowell Community Health Center and he understands why a visit to the doctor’s office can feel traumatic for Cambodian refugees. For some, he says, simply being left alone in a room and waiting for a doctor could cause anxiety.
“When we have patients here, we usually don’t close the door all the way. Because especially for people who have experienced torture, it’s to make them feel like they’re not sitting in the cell,” he shares.
So the health center adapted. They opened the Metta Health Center, a department dedicated to caring for Southeast Asian refugees. They built a meditation lounge, and invited a robed Buddhist monk and a traditional Cambodian healer to consult with their clinical team. In the early years, they often performed age-old therapies like cupping, coining and acupuncture in their exam rooms. They hired new staff — refugees themselves — and lined the walls with Cambodian art.
It was the kind of artwork that had been destroyed in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia’s government and drove millions of citizens to walk by foot to labor camps in the countryside, where they were routinely tortured and starved to death.
When thousands of Cambodian refugees were relocated to Lowell in the 1980s, many weren’t sure whom to trust, including the doctors in white lab coats, who were ready to treat their PTSD. That’s what drove the MettaHealth Center to a different approach.