Over the summer break our family were in the process of supporting our darling matriarch thru the decision of having to undergo radiation therapy. The meeting with the doctor had been set up for two o’clock one afternoon and I had to be there – because I supposedly speak good English. En route to the hospital Mum rings me at 1.27pm to say that the doctor has called for her and wants to meet her now to go over the procedure and explain any after effects of the treatment. Doing my best to sound firm, but not disrespectful over the phone I tell her to tell the doctor that the appointment is for 2pm and they should wait; taking all of me not to use words that my God-fearing, (very) Samoan mother would find unbecoming. Picking up the pace I walk into the consultation room at 1.48pm.
In the intervening 20 minutes between our telephone conversation the doctor went out to my mother and said that she needs to outline the procedure now and can’t wait for me to arrive. Later, mum tells me in Samoan that she didn’t want to be disrespectful to the doctor so she agreed to go in and begin the consultation. My blood boiling but aware that I shouldn’t do or say anything to upset Mum during this time, I ask the doctor a series of questions. Looking at her watch constantly and breathing that breath where you know she’s irritated at having to go over the information again, we talk for a good 45 minutes. Throughout the entire conversation she answers my questions by looking at my mother and only rarely glancing at me. Out of respect for my mother I just handle what I regard as extremely rude behaviour. Mum and I are in and out of Samoan so that we’re both sure that we’ve both understood the conversation, even though there are medical terms used that we have to turn into sentences and phrases because neither of us can find a Samoan equivalent. I think created some new Samoan medical terms that afternoon because we had to transliterate words at times.
Durie (2001) says that Doctors bring a scientific ethos to their work and can improve their treatment of patients significantly by being culturally competent. He adds that the best way to broach this divide is through language, by being aware that there are subtleties in language that need to be delicately explained and understood. Each time I asked the doctor a question she would turn to my mother and begin by saying “it’s your body and you can do what you decide is best for your body Mrs Collins” then briefly glance over at me. Mum would look somewhat confused towards me each time she started her reply with that answer; all the while my frustration growing at the obvious assumptions that she’s making of me. After I politely asked all the questions we had, we requested some time alone so that Mum could think about what the next step would be for her, for us.
Our family had met on a number of times to discuss this treatment with Mum; numerous telephone calls to Australia, prayer meetings, getting advice from our church Minister and calls back home to Samoa. The doctor had no idea of how we prepared for that meeting when she went about starting it half an hour early. To pressure my mum to have the meeting 30 minutes before I could be there to both offer moral and linguistic support was culturally insensitive at best. She had no idea of the cultural power that existed because as a doctor, she’s seen as holding authority and knowledge; the type that we’d been raised to respect. This meeting was about more than “mum’s body” and how she chose to have her body treated. This meeting was about Mum as the matriarch of our family being able to express her values, leadership, wisdom, faith, hopes, anxiety and tradition. The respect that we had shown to the doctor wasn’t reciprocated and it made us feel belittled and undervalued. Eventually the doctor returned and Mum told her exactly what she was thinking and feeling in relation to the discussion and treatment – in true Samoan strength, faith and beauty.