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Green Medicine

What began as a simple story of a young man and his research turned into a heart-rending and inspirational tale about science, family traditions, honor, sacrifice, peace and war. This is Green Medicine: From the Mountains of Laos to the Labs at UW Oshkosh.

As an editor and journalism instructor, I often hear this from well-meaning people: “Hey, you and your students should do a story on 

More often than not, the idea falls flat as a story because of several things - it lacks focus, it lacks purpose, it lacks heart. That wasn’t the case when Dr. Teri Shors, a biology and microbiology professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, told me about her biology student Sitha Thor. She told me about Sitha’s goal to document the “green medicine” that is used by Hmong people for health, wellbeing and healing and to screen the dried roots/bark and plants for antiviral properties in a virology laboratory.

Read more here.

Video from the May 8 Green Medicine Opening Event

From the mountains of Laos to the labs at UW Oshkosh


by Emily Romatoski and Dan Hager

He peers intently into the microscope, hoping to see quantifiable evidence in the traditional healing plants, roots and bark used by his parents and their parents and their parents.


Sitha Thor waters plants in a greenhouse.

These are steps that could very well help preserve the Hmong culture. Through these methodical steps that University of Wisconsin Oshkosh biology major Sitha Thor discovered a link between his family’s spiritual culture and the science that is the focus of his desired future as a research scientist or physician. This link reaffirmed what he had thought his whole life: Hmong herbs and plants have healing powers.

When Sitha works with the samples, he does not see only a few leaves or roots; he sees the stories of his family’s journey to America.


As Sitha slices apart the herb, his mind drifts to his family’s past. The slicing of the herbs reminds him of how his ancestors’ lives were torn apart by a war that they barely understood.

The Secret War

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. recruited, armed and trained Hmong men to fight what is now known as the Secret War in Laos against the rise of Communism and North Vietnamese. However, when the Vietnam War ended, and the Americans left the region, Laos fell into Communist hands. The Hmong were left to fend for themselves, against a regime set on eradicating the Hmong people. Many, including Sitha’s great--grandparents, perished as they fled from the Viet-Cong. The jungles became a new capricious home of sorts, sometimes welcoming, other times, with the Viet-Cong in pursuit, frightening. However, it was in this new home among the lush greenery that offered healing powers and became a welcomed tradition in the Thor family.

Sitha learned the role the herbs and plants played in his family’s survival through the stories of his parents’ escape from the Communists in the jungles. Sitha’s mother explained that, because of the Viet-Cong pressure, her family had to flee into the jungles with only the clothes on their backs. They had no time to gather any prized possessions, or much of anything. As a result many people fell ill in the unforgiving jungles. Rashes and fevers became a common occurrence in these makeshift jungle villages. It was at this time the refugees turned to herbal remedies to survive.

“One of them knew what kind of plants might help to ease those conditions and they actually used some plants from the wild,” Sitha said. “Those plants saved a lot of lives.”


Sitha grinds samples from the herbs. He destroys the herbs, as the Viet-Cong once tried to do his family. 

Survival was the first part of much tougher journey that ground down the Hmongs’ spirits and beliefs. The daily grind of life was given a new meaning. Sitha reflects on all of his parents’ sacrifices. “It makes me have more insight and gives me more motivation of what I’m doing to make sure I made use of myself so it wouldn’t waste my parents’ effort of going through all that,” he said.

These herbs opened the gateway for many Hmongs to survive and to gather the strength to escape.


Sitha sets up his experiment just as his parents set up a new life for the family in America. Sitha’s experiment will open new doors for future Hmong just as his parents’ journey did for him. His efforts in preserving his culture will pose a long journey, but that is nothing new for the Thor family, who live in Appleton, Wis., where Sitha, his wife and children share a large duplex with his parents and other extended family members.

Sitha can’t fathom how different this world of easily attainable food, shelter and comfort is to his parents and older relatives who have moved to the Fox Valley from Southeast Asia. For years, Sitha knew few details of his parents’ hard lives during the Vietnam War. He knows of their escaping to Thailand. Sitha’s mother, then with three young children, was eight months pregnant when the family fled Laos. Tragically, she lost the baby before it came to term. She blames the death on the lack of food and the constant struggle to find drinking water. “It was a boy,” Sitha said.

As Sitha’s mom tells the story, her face remains impassive. She talks of the treacherous rainy season in Thailand, where the Hmongs were placed in refugee camps. Drops from the sky represent the tears shed for what was lost and left behind. Sitha is often reminded of his mother’s tears when he waters the herbs and plants in the University greenhouse on the top floor of Halsey Science Center.

Pink plant
One of many plants Sitha Thor studies.


Coming to America

In 1986, more than 11 years after the Vietnam War, Sitha’s family joined a third wave of Hmong refugees to come to America. It was in this wave of refugees, when some of the Thor family herbs crossed into the American Territory, packed in banana leaves. The Thor family first landed in Seattle, Washington and then moved to Wisconsin in 1987. They’ve lived in Appleton since 1999. Sitha’s dad, Cherpheng, and mom, Seng, and their eight children joined other members of the Thor (also known as the Thao) clan which number about 300 in the Fox Valley.


Sitha peers through the microscope at the herb’s effects towards the viruses. He remembers observing his mother using herbs as a treatment in his past, when he was feeling ill (from a fever of many days) at from his pre-teen years to present.

It was at this early time that Sitha’s mother made him truly recognize the healing powers of the plants, bark and herbs. In Hmong, such remedies are called Tshuaj Ntsuab, which is loosely translated in English, “green medicine.”

Sitha’s mother would boil the tea and have Sitha drink the remedy. At the same time she would massage his body with the herbs believing the bad blood would be forced out. She would then poke his finger with a needle releasing one or two drops of this bad blood. “The interesting thing is that every time she does that, I get better,” Sitha said.

Even then, the healing powers of these herbs fascinated Sitha. These herbs were an integral part of Sitha’s life, yet he had very little understanding of their healing powers. His beliefs were based off what he was told and the effects he felt after using the herbs. His mother is known as an herbalist in the Hmong community. Her “green medicine” comes from her garden. Some dried roots and bark come from the mountains of Southeast Asia and are carefully stored in plastic bags. Her knowledge was passed from her parents, who learned from others and from a network of other Hmong herbalists. For Sitha’s mom, there is a remedy for practically any malady. And all it takes is a special herbal tea or specially made chicken soup.

Taking a Closer Look

Sitha never even thought to study the herbs until Dr. Teri Shors, biology and microbiology professor at UW Oshkosh, suggested he do so. Shors introduced Sitha to the McNair Scholarship program, a federally funded program at UW Oshkosh that aims to encourage underrepresented groups such as first generation college students or minorities to continue to graduate level studies. It is through this program that Sitha’s dedication to culture and passion for science crossed paths.


Terri Shors encourages students to take on research projects for reasons more than to bolster resumes.

Read her story here.

As Sitha holds these herbs, he cannot help but be thankful for the sacrifices that were made by his family that led to the opportunity afforded to his studies today. Sitha collected the plants, herbs and roots from his mother and several aunts and uncles. Sitha’s mother fears that these sacrifices have been made for nothing as she feels the tradition of herbal healing will die with her generation. “It makes me sad inside to hear that from her,” Sitha said.


Sitha records the results of his experiment. The recording of these results not only benefits science but also the Hmong history. A history of oral beliefs has the possibility to be written into scientific proof.

Sitha began studying his family’s herbs in Fall 2011 and was excited to form a collaborative project between the traditional healing practices of the Hmong culture and modern advances of Western science. “I feel that I get a chance to have a deeper understanding about the values of the Hmong medicine... and also the Western views of some of these beliefs,” Sitha said.

Put to the Test

In order to build this bridge, Sitha must undergo the tedious task of a repetitious experimental process. He first slices the fruit or plant he wishes to test. After, he grinds the sliced sample to a pulpy mixture that resembles minced garlic. He then sets the pulpy mixture into a sample tray.

Sitha leaves the lab and walks down a long hallway to retrieve the Vaccinia virus, a virus similar to smallpox (other viruses used were Influenza H1N1 virus and Herpes Simplex Virus 1). He then must return to the lab and flash boil the virus to prepare it for the experiment. 

He must now measure four precise but different concentrations of the herb to be pitted against the virus in a battle similar to Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed in Rocky; the unknown underdog Hmong herbs versus the powerhouse Vaccinia virus. 

Sitha must now watch four rounds of this battle. He watches hoping his herbs stand their ground against a virus with a renowned reputation for destruction. The venue for this battle: the African Green Monkey Cell, a cell that has the potential to relate humans to other mammals. The African Green Monkey Cell acts as a different type of boxing ring. Instead of the fighting being merely in the ring, the fight is for the ring; the virus fighting for the destruction and the herb fighting for its preservation.

The first round, the least level of concentrated herb, is overtaken by the virus. This virus’ domination over the herb is illustrated by the holes it punches through the ring. The next two rounds see a small reverberation of the underdog herb. Despite the herb’s improvements the virus still stands stronger.

In the fourth round, the Hedychium coronarium herb rallies back with a vengeance. The virus does not stand a chance against some of these prepared Hmong herbs that are backed by thousands of years of Hmong tradition and supported by millions of Hmong people.

Sitha observes this victory when the Hedychium coronarium herb he tested knocks out the Vaccinia virus. A victory for Sitha’s herbs meant a victory in the revival of the Hmong culture.  As Sitha sees the positive results of the experiment, he cheers in his head. This cheer is not just for Sitha though, it is for the many Hmong people who have used and continue to use these natural healing methods.

Sitha records this victory in the books.


Sitha cleans his station and chooses the next fruit or plant sample to test. He must tediously repeat this experiment. Repetition is nothing new to Sitha. This entire understanding of the Hmong culture is based on the retelling of an oral history. Sitha hopes to preserve this history by transforming the oral beliefs into a scientific written document.

It is imperative to the Hmong culture that Sitha records the Hmong tradition not only to preserve the history but also to further its endeavors in the future. Sitha has two children with his wife, Sandy, a UW Oshkosh student studying social work.

Their son, Kaio, 7, and daughter, Kyla, 2, are two major forces behind Sitha's determination. He feels these plants can foster the continued practice of the Hmong culture by younger generations in the Thor family.

"At some point my children or their grandchildren will be wondering about their grandparents or great-grandparents about their origin" Sitha said. "These plants can tell us a lot about the past."

So until this gap is bridged and until the tradition of these herbs are preserved, Sitha's journey will continue forward.



Update: As of March 2013, Sitha Thor has grown approximately 80 plants from his mom and relatives in the University greenhouse. He has tested over 70 herbs, plants and bark. More than a dozen have shown anti-viral properties. Sitha plans to attend graduate school in Fall 2013 at an institution that will allow him to continue his research on "green medicine." Sitha is also a recipient of the Chancellor's Award for Excellence for Spring 2013.

Sitha Thor’s mom Seng Vang Thor is an herbalist in the Hmong community. She is the mother of 10 and the grandmother of 17. Her garden, host to many of her “green medicines”, reminds her of the home she left more than 25 years ago. When she brings out the tools of her trade – roots, bark, herbs – she smiles, remembering a happier past in a place that exists now only in her memory. Read her story here.

Sitha Thor’s aunt Ma Xiong Thao is a shaman, a healer, who lives in Appleton, Wis., with her husband, Chong Ge Thao, and their children and grandchildren. In this interview, Ma Xiong shares the long arduous journey she took to become a spiritual healer in the Hmong community. Read her story here.

A prominent Hmong clan leader now living in Appleton, Wis., Chong Ge Thao lives life by leading the Hmong community and volunteering time to guide his clan in a positive religious path. However, Chong Ge did not always live in the land of the free. He was born in a small village named Hoi Thah. By the age of 6, he was working on the family farm to help his family make a living. When Laos was targeted by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, Thao became a young soldier, fighting for the Communists. As a child, Chong Ge played a Chinese musical instrument called a qeej, which is made of bamboo pipes and a hardwood blowing tube, and sounds similar to bagpipes. Thao now plays the qeej during Hmong ceremonies throughout the Fox Valley. Read his story here.
Sitha Thor’s aunt Bee Xiong contributed the most samples to his research. In her home in Appleton, Wis., home are two tables covered in plants. The bigger, older plants are planted in their own containers; the smaller plants and sprouts are individually planted in Styrofoam cups. Bee learned her gardening ways from her parents in Laos, a skill she hopes she can pass to her own children. Read her story here. 

Ya Mee Xiong is the soft-spoken, great-aunt of Sitha Thor. She lives comfortably with her family in Appleton, Wis. In her charming home full of family portraits and lively grandchildren, she reminisced on the longest journey of her life. Ya Mee was born in 1924 in Xab Maj Phwv Tees, a quiet mountainside village in Laos, located in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. She was the third youngest of four brothers and four sisters. In this rural area, she did not go to school. Instead, she became accustomed to her family’s traditions and practices—gardening. Her entire family practiced gardening and found it to be essential to sustaining their lives. Read her story here.