The Spirit World Meets Western Medicine

The Spirit World Meets Western Medicine

By Emy E. Johnston

Judy Hilzer, 63 year old elder of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians,  has been a nurse for over 40 years. It wasn’t until 2007 that Judy was recognized by the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) on the hospital’s spiritual care list as a shaman. Two years away from retirement, Judy is only now able to practice traditional methods of tribal healing within the western world of medicine.

Before her breakthrough, patients could only access priests, ministers, rabbis and energy workers. According to Judy, if a patient requested a shaman, the hospital could do absolutely nothing for them. One patient, awaiting a heart transplant, knew of her background in shamanic healing and asked her for help during surgery. Judy went to the head nurse asking if this was possible, and she was turned down. It was then that she recognized her calling.

She was told that in order to do such work she had to become credentialed. This wasn’t an easy task. Judy went through a rigorous credentialing process through the Patient Care Services department at the hospital. The process involved 15 pages of paperwork, forms that needed to be filled out by former teachers, testimonials from clients and statements detailing the types of services she would be providing. Her request to become credentialed as a shaman was so rare that a new committee was formed to handle alternative practices.

Like many other Americans, Judy recognizes that there is more to wellness than just the physical. This is what compelled her to become credentialed. Having worked within the guidelines of western medicine for so many years, Judy was well aware of the misgivings about this type of healing, and knows how traumatic hospital stays can be for patients. “Anytime we cut the body, put a tube in someone’s throat, or give them a new heart, we are doing the patient a disservice by neglecting the patient’s emotional healing,” Judy said.

Judy describes trauma as losing a part of ourselves, also described as soul loss. If we neglect to heal spiritually/emotionally we develop an emptiness in the body. “There cannot be a void in the body. It must fill with something.” This something Judy discusses can take on many physical forms. Sandra Ingerman, Educational Director of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, also one of Judy’s teachers and supporters, says that, “soul loss is the most common cause of both physical and emotional disease.” Possible symptoms of soul loss include depression, anxiety, addiction and a feeling of emptiness.

Judy grew up disconnected from Chippewa methods of traditional healing. Her grandmother, who was of Chippewa and French Canadian descent, was raised in a boarding school, her language and traditions replaced by western ways. For Judy, being able to practice shamanic healing at her workplace is a way for her to reclaim her lost heritage, making traditional forms healing accessible to all. As she discussed the struggles of her grandmother, her deep brown eyes looked directly into mine, “Honoring them [the ancestors] became one more reason to carry on the work,” Judy said.

Judy reconnected with shamanic forms of healing through The Foundation of Shamanic Studies (FSS).  FSS is a non-profit incorporated educational organization that teaches shamanic healing methods that come from many different cultures. Judy has been studying these practices since 1992. Most recently she took a three year training course offered by the foundation through which she earned her Silver Certificate of Completion. She described this training as an initiation process. During her years of training with the FSS, Judy has learned how to do soul and power animal retrievals, extractions, and has learned to teach others how to journey to the spirit world on their own behalf.

A journey involves a person entering an altered state brought on “by ecstatic singing, dancing or drumming,” which enables “the shaman’s spirit leaves his or her body and enters the supernatural world.”[1] During a journey, the shaman will ask to be connected to spiritual guides and teachers on the behalf of the patient. In a soul retrieval, the shaman will ask of the location of lost soul parts that “disassociate” during trauma, bringing them back from the spirit world.

Since being formally added to the UWMCs spiritual care list, Judy has helped many people in the midst of crisis. She has aided several patients through surgeries, she has journeyed for patients in comas, helped people heal from past emotional wounds, and has even helped couples get and stay pregnant. Though, if you ask her, it isn’t her doing at all. “I consider myself a hollow bone, I do the work of spirit. It is a great honor.”

[1] Stutley, M. (2003). Shamanism an introduction. New York: Routledge.

Emy Johnston, Seattle native, is an active member of the artists for change community in the Pacific Northwest. She has performed theater, dance and spoken word internationally and locally. Emy’s art speaks to the power of reclaiming our identities. She recently discovered her passion for journalism, as she is currently a communications student at the University of Washington Tacoma. Emy is a board member of the Tribes Project, an organization that provides forums for high school age youth to produce and perform creative works that speak out against oppression.

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