THE MEDICINE

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Karen Hitch­cock

Fear, they say, has an ob­ject, whereas anx­i­ety floats more freely, at­tach­ing to noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, or to ev­ery­thing. The two roles that have stirred in me the most fear and anx­i­ety are that of doc­tor and that of mother. The lat­ter is made worse, no doubt, by be­ing a mother who is a doc­tor: be­ing con­stantly con­fronted with real-life ex­am­ples of the ter­ri­ble things that ac­tu­ally can hap­pen. I was un­able to watch my twin daugh­ters on play­ground swings when they were tod­dlers as it made me sick with fear. I’d get their fa­ther to su­per­vise, then crouch some­where and wait. I heard of an emer­gency physi­cian who made his kids wear crash hel­mets in the play­ground. But that wouldn’t pro­tect their tiny necks, would it? And now, what’s a swing com­pared with the man­gling car crash that is fe­male ado­les­cence in this world? Those head­lines, the abuse, glass ceil­ings, primp­ing, plas­tics and porn. How to pro­tect them and still let them play? How to arm them, in­ter­nally? On a plane a few months ago, the guy-in-a-suit next to me splayed his Aus­tralian news­pa­per wide open such that half the pa­per (and his fist) cur­tained the front of my face, while the bot­tom edge of the pa­per stroked my thigh. I turned and stared at him. But he just kept on im­por­tantly read­ing his im­por­tant news­pa­per, in his space and mine. I cleared my throat. I wrig­gled. Coined un­spo­ken protests. I could have po­litely said, “Ex­cuse me?” I could have gen­tly nudged the fist-pa­per-pack­age over to his side of the plane. I didn’t. I as­sumed his ma­noeu­vre was pur­pose­ful – him stak­ing a claim – and it made me feel small and later en­raged, at him and at my­self. It was a triv­ial event, but I thought a lot about my re­ac­tion. What the hell was I afraid of? An imag­i­nary pa­tri­archy? I’ve been punched in the face, called a filthy slut, a cunt, a moll, a dog. I’ve been groped and cat-called and propo­si­tioned. I’ve had a guy scream that I should watch him “cum all over the floor” as he aimed his stream of piss at me. All the per­pe­tra­tors were pa­tients un­der my care, out of their minds with delir­ium, de­men­tia or psy­chosis; drug-ad­dled, tu­mour-rid­dled or dy­ing. I took no of­fence. I was not harmed (the puncher was an 85-year-old, very frail woman). I have only rarely feared for my phys­i­cal safety at work. In clin­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, the kinds of abuse that are sound-minded, pre­med­i­tated and pur­pose­ful are usu­ally per­pe­trated by doc­tors (a mi­nor­ity of doc­tors) against their pa­tients or against their staff. Which is un­sur­pris­ing, given it’s the doc­tors who are gen­er­ally in the po­si­tion of power. What would you do if you could get away with it, if you could ig­nore all the rules and suf­fer no con­se­quences? What plea­sures would you in­dulge, what short­cuts would you take, what part of the so­cial con­tract would you ig­nore? What would you ask for if you knew no one would ever say no? At a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val some years ago, Bret Eas­ton Ellis com­mented that peo­ple would do any­thing to get a part in a movie. He paused, looked us one by one in the eye and said, “Any­thing.” I won­der what it must be like to be an A-grade celebrity or head of state or boss of some gi­ant cor­po­ra­tion. To be sur­rounded by ad­mir­ers, flat­ter­ers, as­sis­tants, de­pen­dants. To be al­ways met by ap­plause, agree­ment and cheer, as if the en­tire world were your car­toon wife, smooth­ing her skirt, fix­ing her smile, qui­eten­ing the kids and fill­ing your glass at the sound of your car in the drive­way. They say every coun­try, every town, every in­sti­tu­tion, every work­place, every home has its own un­spo­ken caste sys­tem. For a minute, an hour, or days on end we’ll in­habit a small uni­verse with its par­tic­u­lar power struc­tures and then bounce out into an­other. In some we are pow­er­ful, in some we are at risk. One minute you’re a CEO and the next you’re half-naked on a stretcher be­ing al­lo­cated a med­i­cal record num­ber and triaged into a vast emer­gency room, whim­per­ing. Com­pe­tent mother to squashed on a bus to end of the queue at Cen­tre­link. It’s been many years since I’ve been in a sit­u­a­tion in which get­ting the sack from a place of work would ren­der me des­ti­tute. So, for now, I’m pro­tected from what­ever com­bi­na­tion of de­sire, fear or need would com­pel me to do “any­thing”. I recog­nise that such a po­si­tion is priv­i­leged. I also have power over oth­ers – my pa­tients, my ju­niors, my chil­dren. It’s not ab­so­lute, and nei­ther is it sim­ple or all one-way. It’s a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity, given that I care for their well­be­ing. And I in­vite them – pa­tient, regis­trar, child – to ques­tion, to dis­agree, dis­cuss, de­cline. Part of my job as the “pow­er­ful” one is to em­power my charges. Speak up. I’m lis­ten­ing. You won’t wound my ego. Noth­ing’s off the table. What a thrill it is to help a girl find and use her voice. Teach­ing those who can to speak up. Al­low­ing them to. Yes­ter­day, one of my daugh­ters was in a fit of rage over “fem­i­nine hy­giene prod­ucts”. She hasn’t started men­stru­at­ing yet, but she’d just heard (on YouTube) that tam­pons are taxed as a lux­ury item. “Tam­pons!” she said, her eyes bulging, hands on her hips. “Ex­trav­a­gant, in­dul­gent, bloody tam­pons are a lux­ury item?” She paused and looked me in the eye, “So. Fuck­ing. Sex­ist.” And I was like: Right on, daugh­ter.

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