GRAHAM ADAMS: The Cancer Society is racist? Really? (2024)

The media’s mission to demonise NZ’s health system continues.

Not long after I began treatment in 2015 for an aggressive leukaemia, I was phoned by a representative of the Cancer Society. A hospital oncology staffer had strongly recommended I give the organisation my name and contact details so I did.

I had become aware — as most cancer sufferers do — that hospital doctors and nurses are highly dedicated, capable and sympathetic to patients’ needs but their primary focus is to keep you alive and return you to good health if possible. They work under immense pressure and don’t have much time to hold your hand if you’re not coping with your diagnosis or the rigours of treatment. They certainly don’t have the time to help you deal with practical concerns such as how you might get to and from hospital.

That’s where the Cancer Society steps in. The person who rang me explained I could get free transport to appointments via its network of volunteer drivers and outlined the financial help available through government agencies if I couldn’t work. She also told me about other services the society offers, including home visits by specialised cancer nurses, free counselling and a helpline for advice and support.

It is a registered charity funded largely by bequests, donations and sponsorships, and it depends on an army of volunteers (including more than 5000 drivers across New Zealand). Personally, I have never met a cancer patient who hasn’t praised the society’s work but there are always a few dissenting voices among those whom charitable enterprises serve.

Reactions to a cancer diagnosis can include anger, resentment, panic attacks and a crippling fear of going anywhere near a hospital — emotions which unfortunately may be expressed sometimes in criticism and hostility towards those doing their best to help. Most patients will readily cut busy doctors, nurses and volunteers some slack and if they happen to be curt after a gruelling shift or a little insensitive to an overly demanding patient, who would blame them? However, a small minority won’t excuse any oversight, error or tetchiness by medical staff or carers. They will take every inconvenience or mistake very personally, and will complain about it loudly. Sometimes their complaints find their way into the media, even when they would seem to most people to be an overreaction or plainly vexatious.

Last week, the NZ Herald republished a story from Te Ao Māori News that recounted how a young-ish Māori woman had felt that staff at the Cancer Society’s Domain Lodge had “discriminated” against her during her stay there and that they had shown a lack of cultural competency.

The Domain Lodge is a purpose-built facility a short stroll from Auckland Hospital that offers accommodation for patients who have to travel from out of town for cancer treatment. It is a modern, well-maintained building with a shared kitchen where patients can cook their own meals. It has expert cancer nurses on hand, who are in close contact with the staff at the hospital treatment centres, and there are free counselling services.

The woman, Heeni Hoterene — a Northland advocate for traditional rongoā medicine and maramataka that incorporates the healing power of the moon — was apparently asked to vacate her room at 10am “because all the rooms were booked out”. She was told that she could, if she wanted, stay in the building and sit in the living area until another room was ready for her at 2pm.

The terms and conditions make it clear that “Domain Lodge functions like a motel. It is not a health-care facility and is unsuitable for people who require a high level of care.” Nevertheless, Hoterene complained to Te Ao Māori News that she objected to having to vacate her room and that she didn’t want to feel exposed in a public area after receiving radiation treatment.

She said: “Everyone else gets to recover privately in their room. Why am I the one that’s being moved out of my room?” She alleged it was because she was Māori, had a moko kauae and was younger than all the other guests.

The journalist who repeated her allegations did not critically examine them; it seemed sufficient to simply assert them. And that, perhaps, should not be surprising given the mainstream media has been on a mission for years now to interpret any adverse statistics in Māori health or perceived errors in diagnosis and treatment as a direct result of institutional racism.

Their aim can be best achieved, of course, by a very selective presentation of the facts. Certainly Hoterene’s complaints might have been viewed differently if the article had mentioned that she had stayed at The Lodge for five days — and that accommodation for cancer patients is provided free of charge.

The story in Te Ao Māori News and the Herald didn’t mention that many patients are able to continue to work while they are undergoing radiotherapy. Indeed, as Hoterene told her 55,000 Facebook followers in a video clip last Friday, she expected to be well enough after her final radiation session that morning to be driven the three hours to her home in Northland. In that context, a few hours snoozing in the lobby doesn’t seem like a particular hardship.

She had also been well enough to go out dining and dancing (“kanikani”) on K’ Rd, a kilometre or so from The Lodge, the previous evening.

Of course, it’s always possible it was a mistake for the lodge staff to have asked her to vacate her room. Perhaps she was more fragile and fatigued than she appeared. Given she was younger than the other patients, perhaps she was mistakenly assessed as being more resilient. But why would media organisations so credulously repeat accusations of cultural insensitivity and discrimination as the reason she had to temporarily vacate her room?

The answer, of course, is obvious. Without the allegation of “discrimination” — meaning racism — there would have been no story. There is nothing remarkable about a patient being inconvenienced. Hospitals are forced to juggle patients and beds constantly. Just last week, Auckland Hospital Maternity Services warned expectant mothers they may be discharged three to four hours after giving birth. Now that’s a story.

When I collapsed after a day-long infusion at North Shore Hospital as I was leaving the building one winter’s evening I was told bluntly the hospital was full and there was no bed available. But thanks to a very kind nurse who stayed behind after the end of her shift to help me, I was eventually given a bed for the night in a consultants’ room which wasn’t normally available to patients. But it was made very clear I had to leave by 7am.

I could barely stand upright in the morning but I managed to vacate the room as requested and sat slumped in a chair in the foyer until someone arrived to drive me home. No journalist would have thought my experience was a story worth reporting, and nor should they have.

Cancer Society spokesperson Michelle Gundersen-Reid issued the obligatory public apology to Hoterene: “The team and I are sorry that this week we haven’t maintained our usual high standard of support as we had to shuffle a resident between rooms so we could fit as many people in as possible.

“As soon as we became aware of the issue, we booked a meeting in with the impacted person. Representatives from our board and senior management team met her yesterday to apologise directly and discuss what happened, so we can learn from this experience.”

It is obvious that once an organisation is accused of “cultural” failings or discrimination, it is pointless to try to explain its actions or defend itself. It will only invite more opprobrium — which the race-hustling mainstream media will gleefully amplify. The society’s only option was to apologise profusely.

Hoterene claimed the senior managers she met lacked cultural competency. “Staff are still ignorant of how to interact with Māori,” she said. “How do we educate them on the best way to care for Māori within these places?”

The news story reported that when Hoterene had told staff, “Oh, my whānau are coming to stay,” one had replied, “There is a rule here that not a lot of whānau can stay.” Hoterene responded with: “Who are you to talk to me like that?”

Her Facebook video clips expanded on her view that the lodge’s policy mandating patients can have only one supporter stay with them was culturally inappropriate. Māori, she said, never turn up in “ones”.

She reckoned 17 members of her whānau in two vans had intended to come to see her and asked: “Where do I go to host them?... Where’s the marae room?”

If Hoterene’s expectations about how many whānau members the lodge should welcome had made their way into Te Ao Māori News or the Herald story — or in a follow-up to the original piece — readers would have been much better equipped to judge the merits of her complaint about cultural insensitivity.

The chances of that happening, however, are as remote as the media reporting the assessment on May 31 by a Māori family from Opononi who were full of praise for the lodge and their care. A whānau member posted on Facebook: “Beautiful stay at the Domain Lodge... Thank you so much to the surgeons, Dr Kei, Dr Lund, Dr Prasaad, nurses Vanessa, Lisa, Savita, SeKumar, Anna, Lynn, Sunita, Nesse. So grateful that we have top surgeons & staff at Cardiology Wards 42 & 48. Thank you for your love and care. Love & blessings xx.”

The names of the surgeons and nurses mentioned are indicative of just what a vast melting pot our health system has become. To claim that such dedicated staff representing a wide range of ethnicities are somehow particularly prejudiced against Māori not only strains credulity but is widely seen as offensive.

Nevertheless, the mainstream media shows no signs of abandoning its mission to convince the public of New Zealand’s deep-seated racism wherever possible, no matter how flimsy the evidence. As one wag put it: “The demand from journalists for stories about racism vastly exceeds the supply.”

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This article was first published at The Platform.

GRAHAM ADAMS: The Cancer Society is racist? Really? (2024)
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