When a woman falls sick, I imagine the menfolk around her wondering if it is “women’s business”, smirking with the nudge nudge, wink wink that accompanies embarrassing conversation.
LOCAL DRUMMER BY THEMBE KHUMALO
Once her illness is deemed serious enough to warrant her staying in bed for more than a day, then embarrassment turns to real worry. What will the home be without its central pivot? Who will decide what we will eat, what the children should wear, whether they should be allowed to go and play at so-and-so’s house?
We need the woman at the helm of the household for all of these things. We need her to make all of the choices which, though not difficult, we still would rather were made by her because she is better-placed to deal with the consequences.
When a man falls sick, the women folk sigh patiently. They put him to bed (because, of course, he can’t do this himself — he is sick) and they wait to see how his sickness pans out. They keep the children out of his way, make sure he gets the food he wants, the papers he reads and the programmes he watches on television.
When a man falls sick, he needs around-the-clock care and attention, and the ability to manage him in this condition without losing one’s temper is the real measure of a woman’s true love.
But while the “man cold” is a tongue-in-cheek concept used to point out the absurdity of men’s requirements when they are sick, it does in fact have a more serious consequence in placing society’s expectations of women — even when they are sick. We simply expect them to carry on. For this reason, many serious illnesses only get discovered when it is late — because women keep thinking, “its nothing” when they experience the initial symptoms.
Additionally, many women are easily intimidated when they go to the doctor. Let me know if this experience is familiar: You go into the consulting room and sit down. The doctor greets you and asks what is wrong. You lose eye contact almost immediately while you begin to describe your symptoms, while the doctor makes small encouraging noises. He (let’s allow him to be male for purposes of this conversation) is making notes and generally looking busy.
You don’t know whether you should carry on talking or stop. You carry on talking, but the doctor is not really looking at you ; he is writing on different pieces of paper and looking very serious about it, so you figure maybe you are talking to yourself and you should stop. “Hmnnn” he says, “OK. I am going to send you to the lab for some tests and in the meantime here is a prescription. You need to take two tablets everyday after eating, until its finished. Then you can phone for the results from the lab after a week.”
The doctor hands you the pieces of paper and you understand that this marks the end of the conversation and that you are duly dismissed. You get up and go back to your children who are waiting in the waiting room and back to your life which is waiting for you at home and at work. Here is your reality:
- You feel a little stupid because you have been talking to yourself and you are aware that the other adult in the room did not seem to be paying attention while you were talking.
- You have no idea what is wrong with you or what the doctor thinks may be wrong with you
- You are not sure what the medicine he has prescribed is, (his writing is illegible) or why he has chosen that particular medicine or what effect he is expecting it to have
- You do not know what the possible side effects of the medicines are of what other options are available besides the medicines he prescribed
- You do not know what is being tested for at the lab; and when they say the results are “OK” you are not clear what that means
- You are no wiser about your health situation that you were before you went to see the doctor!
There is something very disempowering about not having enough information about yourself. It is even more disempowering when you are not feeling well, and you are, therefore, more vulnerable than normal anyway. I believe it is time women took greater responsibility for their health, and this is something we can do simply by asking more questions. Feel free to ask the doctor “What are you writing on my card?”, “Why are you prescribing this drug?”, “Should I expect any side effects?”, “What are they going to test for at the lab?”, “Why do you think they should test for that?”, “Do I really need an antibiotic?”, “Is there another option we could explore?”
Bear in mind this is not only your body, but it’s also your money. Reclaim your power and remember that you employ the doctor, not the other way round!