How comfortable are you when it comes to making a complaint?
I’ll go first: not very. Just yesterday, in a local coffee shop, I picked unhappily at a stale cinnamon bun that I had just bought, when I should really have brought it back to the counter after the first, sawdust-dry bite.
I guess - like many Irish people - I don’t like to be perceived as “fussy” or “difficult” or risk causing offence or getting anybody in trouble: even if I’m in the right. But when the stakes are much higher, we really have no choice but to raise our voices.
Earlier this summer, I had to attend my local hospital on a Saturday morning for a suspected early miscarriage: my third loss in 14 months. After being triaged, I howled in the gynae room of the A&E as my husband put his arm around me, before composing myself as the doctor arrived to confirm what I already knew.
By then, however, the sanitary towel I had put on at home when I started to bleed was soaked through. After the physical examination was complete, I asked if I could have a clean one. The doctor checked the shelves. There was none. Gave a cursory glance into the wider A&E. None there either apparently. It was suggested that I could buy a packet in the hospital shop. I made do with some tissue from the bathroom and left. I just wanted to get out of there.
I knew at that moment that this was unacceptable. That a room dedicated to gynaecological issues, in a busy A&E, would not have the most basic sanitary product in stock? That any woman who might be experiencing pregnancy loss- or any other intimate issue- would have to make do with toilet paper in 2023?
But again… I didn’t want to make a fuss. I reasoned that it was “nobody’s fault”. Staff were under huge pressure. It was an oversight. I was probably just unlucky.
Fortunately, when I told a friend who also works in healthcare, she was absolutely furious on my behalf.
“You have to put that in writing Maria,” she insisted. “It’s not right.”
So, I did: calmly but more confident in the fact that I wasn’t being “difficult”: I was standing up for my right to be provided with the most basic dignity at one of the most vulnerable moments in my life.
And little more than an hour after pressing “send” on my email, I received a phone call from the hospital complaints co-ordinator. Yes, she agreed, her voice warm with empathy, this should never have happened. My complaint would be looked in to. Something would be done.
I received a sincere letter and apology just this week on what occurred that morning. I can’t imagine that it will take all that much to make sure that this does not happen again; and I can’t be sure that it won’t ever happen again. But at least now, it’s less likely to happen again.
As for being considered “difficult”? I smiled recently when I saw a quote by the English primatologist, Jane Goodall, doing the rounds on social media. “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.”
And maybe by being “difficult”, we can make things easier for those who come after us?