Monday, June 22, 2009

Master and servant

"Many of my past relationships didn't work out because the other person didn't realise they belonged to me" - Jack MacFarland, Will & Grace.

There is a syndrome which I believe to be uniquely South African. It is called "Madame syndrome". Bongi coined the phrase. It involves middle class (usually white) women - the madames, for this is how they are addressed - and their household help: the domestic workers. The Madames tend to take ownership over their employees - for their own good of course - and therefore usually accompany them to the doctor/clinic/hospital because they feel they are incapable of doing it by themselves. Incapable of telling the doctor what the problem is, understanding what the doctor diagnoses them with and totally incapable of understanding what medication they must take and how and why. One madame actually told a friend of mine, when told that her gardener was not a child but a person in his own right, that he had the mind of a child. Seriously.

All of us have seen the Madame Syndrome and often, but it still irritates the crap out of me.

The most satisfying encounter I've had with a madame was when one brought her gardener to the casualty unit of a hospital where he was accepted, even though he did not fall into the catchment area. She came to complain to me about the "blond nurse" who had initially not accepted her gardener and who had given her "a hard time" before accepting him as a patient. That "blond nurse" was in fact, not a nurse, but a doctor, and not just a doctor, but an emergency medicine specialist and happened to be the head of the emergency unit. When I told her this, she demanded to speak to the superintendent of the hospital then. As the superintendent was away on leave, the "blond nurse" also happened to be the acting superintendent at the time. The madame was furious and vowed to take further action. I thought she was ungrateful and pathetic, as our unit had accepted her gardener as a patient, against our policy and had given him pretty damn good treatment! I couldn't help but laugh inwardly at her frustration.

Recently I was involved in two distinctly different cases of Madame Syndrome.

The one involved a friend of a friend. This friend called me up one day to say that her friend had a problem. She had convinced her domestic worker to have an HIV test as the domestic worker's husband had recently unexpectedly succumbed to an unknown illness. The problem was that the HIV test had turned out to be positive and she now did not know how to break it to her or what to do about it. That's right, she had taken her to have an HIV test, she had had no counselling or preparation, and then she was not even given her own results! The pathologist had given the results to the madame! I was disgusted, although I didn't make this evident. I told her that the best thing to do would be for her friend to bring in her domestic worker and we would do proper counselling, testing and further management. Afterwards I was fuming. I have always had a low tolerance for madames. I decided that I would speak to her if she came in with her domestic worker on the appointed day, which she inevitably would. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross.

The other case was a proper referral. I saw the madame in the waiting room with whom I assumed was her gardener (he turned out to be one of her farm hands). I was annoyed before the fact. As it turned out, when it came to be his turn, I happened to be the next available doctor. He needed to have his vital signs taken, so he was taken to the nurse's room first. I got ready for a confrontation when he was called and his madame started following him to the room. There wasn't enough space in the room so she waited at the door. I went into the room, closed the door and asked the nurse to ask him who the woman accompanying him was and if he wanted her to come in with him for the consultation. He said that she was his madame. He said that he did not want her to come in. He was the patient and he had decided so I prepared to enforce it.

When his vitals had been taken, I asked him to follow me to my room. His madame followed. When we got to the door of my room I stopped and asked her "Are you his employer?" and she said "Yes". "I'm going to have to ask you to wait outside" I said. Unexpectedly, she answered "Of course". I felt a bit confused actually. She went on to say "I'm a registered nurse and I respect his confidentiality, I just wanted to tell you what I know." She told me what doctors he had seen previously, what they had diagnosed, what they had prescribed and the progress he had made. I felt a bit sheepish. "Thank you" I said. She waited outside during the consultation. I asked the patient if he wanted me to tell his madame what I'd found and what I would do. He had absolutely no problem with it, so I called her in and brought her up to speed. She was very co-operative and very grateful and I had a chance to see them interact with each other. Their relationship was not the typical master-subordinate one I was so used to seeing. I was pleasantly surprised.