12 May 2021

Guest blogger: Beth Calverley

I’m the Arts & Culture Programme’s Poet in Residence at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, made possible by Above & Beyond and Weston Area Health NHS Trusts Charitable Fund. 

I’m taking a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned from being an NHS Poet in-and-out-of Residence during a global pandemic. I’ve separated this blog post into four sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Each posts includes a writing idea at the end of each ‘season’, so you can have a go yourself.

This is the second seasonal installment. Click here to read the "Summer 2020" blog (1/4).

Autumn 2020: beginning to build

As schools and universities opened their classrooms again after the first national lockdown, the scope of my residency expanded from one hospital, South Bristol Community Hospital, to all hospitals across the Trust

In September, we launched our creative writing sessions for staff, Pause + Reflect. I host these monthly opportunities alongside neonatal consultant, Elizabeth Osmond, and the wellbeing lead for doctors and dentists, Rachel McCoubrie. Originally intended to focus on writing for reflective practice, this series has evolved into 45-minute lunchtime and evening sessions, where we read carefully-selected poetry or prose together and dip our toes into creative writing around themes unrelated to work. After the first couple of sessions, conscious that this was a very stressful time for NHS workers, we decided to refocus on playful, imaginative activities that create a break from work.

Envelopes containing poems, created by Beth with patients and staffIn the opening sessions, it was frustrating that I couldn’t be present in a room with my fellow writers. Working online brings specific safeguarding and tech considerations. My professional supervision and personal reflection, along with this resource by the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, helped me to adapt my approach. Even now, tech issues still arise. People often have to cancel at the last minute due to unexpected work or family demands. Responding to this, we send out a summary of activities to everyone who signs up as well as those who take part, so that the inspiration can continue beyond the scheduled times. 

Below are some beautiful pieces of writing from three members of staff who have taken part in Pause + Reflect sessions, shared with permission. The first two poems contain references to childbirth, blood and illness.  

Grandson by Lesley Moore

The alarm was pressed.
Medics ran in as you arrived in the world amidst chaos and panic.
Your presence touched my core, as my heart tried to leave my chest with the intensity of love that engulfed my whole being.
All appeared well! The medics left.
Again the alarm was pressed.
Me, an onlooker, emotions now in a spin, fear set in.
They whisked my child, your mummy away.
I stood in awe as the midwife placed you in my hands, me scared by your fragility.
Your thumb in your mouth, you appeared serene amidst the chaos and the panic.

Extracts from Blood by Professor David Marks 

Blood should be a reddish colour. Sometimes when it is deprived of oxygen it is a worrying dark blue, the colour of cyanosis. Very occasionally in a patient with carbon monoxide poisoning, it is ‘cherry red’. Blood affects a person’s skin colour: this is key to our perception of whether they look well or not. [...]

People with acute leukaemia pose a compelling medical problem. My patients with leukaemia are usually young and previously well, but suddenly they have a life-threatening problem, that until relatively recently could not be fixed. Now, using science - the results of clinical trials and meticulous clinical care - we can cure many of these patients with most returning to a normal life. Communicating with these patients, working with them and keeping them well so that they have a chance of cure: that is my motivation.

Simply unfinished by Rachel McCoubrie

House never thoroughly tidy
Nor garden totally trim,
Hair never carefully coiffured,
Nor waistline sufficiently slim.
To-do list gets longer and longer
Relationships struggle to grow
Children are all work in progress
Life’s journey some distance to go.
Meanwhile I’ll put on the kettle
And sit and drink tea with a friend;
Everything’s simply unfinished
Apart from this poem
The End.

As well as staff poetry sessions, I worked with in-patients at South Bristol Community Hospital. At first, I was able to visit in person, before we transitioned to digital devices due to visiting being suspended to prevent the spread of infection. I was reliant on a member of staff to walk around the wards, inviting patients to take part and getting everything set up. If it hasn’t been for the passionate support of a colleague who distributed and set up each patient with a digital device, the remote sessions with patients would not have been able to go ahead.

It was good to hear from patients who had spent weeks on their own, away from loved ones, and valued the chance to speak to someone else and create a poem together that they would receive by post. When I felt that progress was slow, I reminded myself that transition takes time. When the branches are swaying beneath your feet, simply breathe, pick up the next twig, and start rebuilding that nest. 

Writing ideas: Three for the price of one! Inspired by the writing from the Pause + Reflect sessions, choose from these ideas...

  • Write about a moment of arrival or calm
  • Write about something changing colour
  • Write a list of things that are simply unfinished (inspired by a quote from Amanda Gormon’s poem The Hill We Climb.)

Read the Winter blog

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