Week Two of UK Lockdown

And it continues. We listen to the wireless almost hourly for news and watch the BBC ten p.m. evening broadcasts each night for updates on the UK Corona virus figures. And with such intense scrutiny it is clear that something is happening at ‘Auntie’. Over the last two years the BBC has seen budget cuts of up to 80 million pounds. This has caused the loss of 450 jobs from its news and story departments. Those BBC executives who still have their jobs warn that the corporation is facing an unprecedented threat to its future. The National Union of Journalists has said the BBC was facing an “existential threat”, while the sharing of radio bulletins across the BBC will result in further job losses. Newsnight, a nightly, popular political program will lose a dozen personal, production of its in-depth films will be halved, and its investigative journalism diminished.

There is also an effort to reduce the number of on-screen news presenters, which brings up the question of where is Huw Edwards, the main BBC News anchor? Even beloved Clive Myrie is rarely seen. The news presentation team is now almost entirely women and that raises another question of pay scale equality.  Commenting on changes due to the Corona Virus situation a memo reads… “We’ve tightened hygiene and safety measures. Our presenters are now doing their own make-up.” And it shows.

On Friday Sir Keir Starmer was elected the new Labour Party leader. He gives his speech trying to be as passionate as he can, (not his strongest suit) and with the transmission through one microphone to another and then to the airwaves his words loose a certain panache. Thankfully his somewhat swept hair will be a change for the cartoonists who are getting a little bored by Boris’s haystack haircut. But we wish Starmer luck with uniting the Labour party and in the parliamentary collaboration with the conservatives that must come at this time. 

For my allotted daily exercise I alternate between riding a rental bike and walking in Regent’s Park. A four mile cycle around the outer circle is pretty good. I am alone and not so nervous as there is less traffic and the car drivers and fast bikers now travel with a little more consideration. At the North West corner of the park sits Grove House, the first of the six gated, fenced and locked villas built by Quinlan Terry between 1988 and 2004. All of them are owned by one Sultan or another to be close to the mosque, while in town. Before Grove House there is a small stretch of parkland. The daffodils have begun to fade here and an old elm tree lies fallen on its side. A pair of lovers, wrapped in their winter scarves are standing close. She is hesitant but he pulls her towards him. He wants to feel her body through the rough wool of their heavy coats. I can’t help but smile as I see them. He, ever watchful, catches my eye and with an almost apologetic grin asks that I understand. And I do.   

It is a sunny Saturday morning but I am missing lemons and cumin. Risking the disapproval of our neighbors, I walk to Shepherd’s Market in the village. Regent’s Park Road would normally be bustling with activity but this Saturday is different. There are only a few people out on the street and those that are zig-zag across the road to keep at a distance. Two young people almost take themselves off of the pavement as they pass close to me and we smile. I can’t tell if they are being considerate of me or careful of themselves. At the market, a notice reads that only one customer is allowed to enter the shop as another one leaves. I stand behind a middle-aged man who is struggling to be patient with the older gentleman balancing a cane and two bags of groceries while climbing into his motor buggy. There is another queue outside of the butcher’s shop with people standing a discrete distance from each other. They are silent. There is no chatting for that would necessitate people leaning closer to each other.

It has been over a week since I was in the chemist’s shop. Another older man is standing outside the door, gathering himself as he slowly leans on his cane to walk home. Inside the chemist’s there is now a big wood framed plastic partition across the counter which it is clear will stay long after the virus leaves. I wonder about these solitary men, for now that the pubs are closed they have no place to belong, alone within the company of others. In London it is easy to half-close your eyes and see Hogarth’s England with all of humanities foibles etched on our faces. The experts say we are still two to three weeks from the peak of this virus. Tonight on the television and radios around the country the Queen will speak to the nation, gathering us all to a greater unity of purpose. And within the silence of the street maybe there is hope as we listen to the robin calling out for love once more.

This has been a Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch. 

  • Huw Edwards surfaced again via Twitter on Monday. Thanking the National Health Staff for all of their care while he was ill with pneumonia.
  • And as of this posting Boris Johnson is stable with oxygen in St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.

Week One of London Lockdown

March 29th 2020 (Updated on April 1 2020) — Week One of Lock Down in London

A week ago on Friday, when my husband walked into Camden for some printer ink and returned with 5 Kilos of rice, I smiled. But now more than a week later I’m grateful to have that not so little bag of rice tucked away behind a chair in the living room. In the United Kingdom the death toll is over over 2200 and in London will be 700 plus by the time this reaches you. We are all finding different ways of being prepared for this new reality and the challenges and solutions of city living are different from life in the country.

Government Alert sent to ‘almost’ everyone

Being of a certain age we have been told – in no uncertain terms – to stay indoors except for one daily exercise adventure. This could be going to the grocery store, the pharmacy or, if really necessary, the doctor or hospital. In an effort to keep one’s sanity, the dog happy, blood circulating and bowels open we are all encouraged to take a daily constitutional in whatever way suits our fancy. There are signs posted in Regent’s Park reminding us to keep our social distance from each other.

We walk carefully, mindful of others on the pathway, staying at that social distance from each other with a grateful nod of thanks. And it is spring and we can all be grateful for that. But I can’t help wondering if someone were to fall, or become ill on the path would anyone stop to help them? Some areas are closed. Understandably the Zoo is closed. But then, also understandably, are the public toilets. The notice, posted by the label for the ‘Golden Showers’ Roses reads ‘Due to the present day crisis these facilities are closed.’ Which, due to the present moment crisis, could provide another critical moment.

A serious crisis moment

But we are taking it all seriously and are tremendously grateful for our neighbors with their offers to help and the shops with delivery services that are working to full capacity. On Monday Vinnie, our milkman, said that he ran out of cheese. At first I thought he had just forgotten the order and put it down to typical milkman behavior. But then my little carrier had only one slab of cheese besides the two pints of milk so maybe his supplies are getting low.

Necdet from Parkway Greens has been busy beyond belief sending out daily delivery vans with boxes of fruit and vegetables. Delivery is free for house-bound seniors giving us another reason to be grateful.

Our little corner of London is quiet. Occasionally we see a neighbor and wave from a scarfed or masked distance while still asking “Are you OK? Do you need anything?” Every weekday morning Bob from Manley Street strides out of his cottage early, not for a walk but off to work. I wonder what is essential about his job and my imagination leads me to him working for MI5 in one of the discreet building along the 274 bus route.

From 8 a.m onwards throughout the day solitary delivery trucks come up and down the street. Masked young men bang on doors to drop off a package and then flee the doorsteps, behaving, though not yet looking, like one of Santa’s elves. No one stops for a signature any more. I’m grateful when our tea order from Fortnum and Mason’s arrives and smile at my last extravagance. If we do get sick at least we can still be drinking good tea.

Another van drops off builders next door. Essential work ? Well that depends who you are asking. It’s a balancing act between abandoning or completing a job, leaving a client in disarray and – or the workmen left with no income.

No longer able to walk to the Camden Bakery I turn to my old farm recipes and begin to bake. But it seems that the whole country is baking and the shortage of flour on the shop shelves this week made news headlines. I suspect this is more than a necessity for food, it is a need for the giving and receiving of comfort within our families and for each other.

First loaves I learnt to bake in 1969?

And who would have thought it possible that the English could garden even more than they do. But on the kitchen windowsill my chard seeds have sprouted and already have four leaves. Soon they will be ready to go out into the little garden patch that I work. But not today because March is going out like a lion. The wind is blowing and we wrap warmly up to take our walk. The door blows shut as we turn to face the empty street and the tiny snow flakes falling on our faces. 

First aired on KWMR.org Swimming Upstream with host Amanda Eichstaedt – April 1 2020

Keeping Calm in London Town

“You ol rite?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Not coughin’?”
“No Maddy, not coughing.”
And Maddy gives me a thumbs up sign before she scurries away to catch an overland train to Battersea and visit her ailing mother.

Thank you Zine

“Do you need anything? Can I shop for you?”
“Thank you Sinder. We are ok at the moment.”
A note is slipped through the letterbox from Zine our neighbor at # 37. “… I would be most happy to help”.
“Aggie, Aggie.” Mr Habto has returned from his early morning taxi run and is standing by his cab. 

“Anything we can do to help. Please let us know. Knock on the door or leave a note.”
Maddy is probably London born and bred, Sinder is Hindu, Zine is from Eastern Europe, and Mr Habto a Coptic Christian from Africa. This is the mix of the little community at the bottom of our street. They all have families to care for and yet are finding moments to be watchful over us. We have become the “old folks” on the street. Thus neighbour cares for neighbour in our little corner of London. And we are grateful.

It is Sunday afternoon. The sun will not come out again today. The wind is blowing and the raindrops seem hesitant and unsure where to fall. Families are walking home from their ‘fresh air and exercise’ moment in the park. Football games are still scrubbing along in the mud. White shorts are streaked with brown, hair is windblown and there is quiet laughter coming across the pitches from the players. Out there – the city, London, – is very quiet.

Boris Johnson and his lieutenants appear very old school serious as they stride to the podiums set up in the State dining room at Number 10 Downing Street, while trying to cover up the fact that Number 19 Coronavirus may be beyond their abilities. This may be the first time in his life that Johnson gets really serious, and not everyone is convinced he knows how to do that. We can only hope that he might in fact be growing into the role of Prime Minister and treating this with all with the gravitas it deserves. One does suspect that upsetting the populace is as an important part of the equation as is protecting the insurance companies. Another supposition is that this is seen, by Johnson at least, as his Churchill moment. One can be grateful though that he has these two lieutenants: England’s Chief Scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, and the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty by his side. Whitty, or is it Vallance, produced graphs on a large board and pointed away so that the journalists in the room, sitting as close together as ever, could understand what was trying to be accomplished and then relay that information to us, the presumably less well-educated public. Vallance and Whitty are both, in their English way, considerably more competent than the school-yard gang that surrounds Donald across the water.

Daily updates from the government will now to come from Number 10 Downing Street as the situation changes every twelve hours with more confirmed cases and deaths. Johnson and his team are putting some guidelines in place while they wait to come down with a heavy hand. It’s a gamble for sure. Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, sputtered and muttered on the Andrew Marr Sunday morning show about ‘Doing everything we can and self-isolation’. Manufacturers have an opportunity to make millions of Pounds Stirling and ventilators. “Other countries in the world will be needing them too.” Mostly though it is businesses, sports centers and banks (!) that are leading the way, encouraging working from home, cancelling big matches (though not the Cheltenham Race meet last week), and encouraging self-isolation.

And now, on Monday morning, there are more shutters coming down. Museums have already closed, special openings have been postponed, and the British Film Institute team all work from home, strategizing what this means for the film industry in England. We withdraw too, canceling lunch dates with friends and family. Being well over a certain age, 70, we are all ‘vulnerable.’ and many of us have at least one strike hitting our general health. We are being encouraged to self-isolate. What will happen then to the organizations run primarily by older volunteers who serve their communities? As I write an email comes through from one such trusted leader: ‘The Library is closed for the foreseeable future’. What will happen to those books? Sitting on their shelves so lonely and unread. Theatres, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and restaurants are all growing dark as their lights dim. Today all religious leaders united in asking their followers to pray at home.

Hand sanitizers are out and visible – where they are available. Otherwise it is serious and constant hand washing – by those who do that sort of thing. Shop-keepers and checkout folks wear rubber gloves to handle the £ coming in. And £s are rolling into supermarkets as folks panic buy and buy. That may have begun to calm down now with ‘assurances’ that the stores have enough of what we need stock-piled somewhere. This morning the pharmacy was full even as folks tried to stay apart from each other. The doctor’s office is closed with a notice on the door saying that appointments will be by phone for the near future! The local Deli and other coffee shops on the street are almost empty. Can they hold on for those over-70s for whom a little sandwich at the coffee shop is their main meal?

Daffodils from Taghi A’s Morning walk

We are grateful for the Hill and Regent’s Park where we can walk in isolation. Wild primroses rise from the soil to shine close to the ground. The daffodils are reaching their peak, staying upright through the foul weather of the last weeks. But the plum and pear trees lining the street are beginning to loosen their soft blooms and whisper in the breeze for us to keep heart. Our Robin Red Breast hops down to check my worm count as I work in the little garden. She too tells me to let the warming soil soothe my soul.

Primrose in St. Mark’s Church garden Wall. Photo WSM

‘Our’ Robin checking my work

Minding the Gap

Learning to Heal recipient of the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing; Working Class Studies 2019

“Mind the Gap,” says the voice over the loud speaker and as I sit on the bench at the platform edge waiting for the train to unload the commuters coming into the city I think of ‘The Gap’. The book in my bag carries writing that looks back across the gap in time, from the days when we were nursing students to now. Each nurse author has written of where they have come from, and the events that bound them to their calling. Often it was touch, and the humble bed bath that was the sacrament that enfolded and claimed us as nurses.

Learning to Heal

Nurse Slater. The end of first year, receiving ‘Medicine in its Human Setting’

Sitting on that railway station bench, holding my bag and coffee (and croissant) I watched as the passengers got off the train, and walked quickly towards the exit, making their way down the escalator into their days in the city. It was a very definite ‘Miss Pym’s Day Out’  moment of watching: the dogged determination of the young man with his folding bike, the resignation of an older middle aged man, the nervous excitement of a young girl maybe hurrying to a new job. Then there was a very slim woman wearing a pencil pleated yellow skirt and pink blouse. She was determined not to let summer go – just yet.

The passengers are all off and the train is cleaned and ready for the few of us to board. It is a fast train from St. Pancras in London to Canterbury in Kent and I will take in a day at the ‘Working Class Studies Conference’ before the evening event at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

A knowing Taxi driver takes me to the campus and Keynes College, dropping me off exactly where I need to be. How many young students has he driven to their first day of college?

First there was Registration before going upstairs to the reception and classrooms. There were two book stalls, and on one, our book, propped up comfortably among communist manifestos and the rights of workers and all else.

Learning to Heal at the book stand

Looking through the program I circled three seminars to attend. What I heard time and again, is that when industry that has been built up is then taken away, closing factories but without providing alternative jobs or industry, it is the community that dies.

The evening light was soft and autumnal as I walked with a fellow participant from Nova Scotia University to the Darwin College Conference hall. The tables were prepared, and the buffet pans were being set up for the food that would follow. Terry Easton from the University of North Georgia introduced me to the other Tillie Olsen award winner, Ted Van Alst Jr. author of Sacred Smokes. We exchanged books and as I peeked inside his collection of stories I raised my glass of cider to his seeing. We sat together with his lovely wife Amie. My ‘End of Empire’ friends also came to the dinner offering moral support and a bed for the night.

Terry introduced us with these words:

“Judges named two winners in this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. The interlocking stories in Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.’s Sacred Smokes provide “an authentic representation of working-class urban life in the 1970s,” one judge wrote, adding that ‘[t]he collection’s tone-perfect survival humor helps create verisimilitude and keeps readers engaged . . . despite its often-dark themes.’ The collection is ‘one of the few fictions about urban working-class Natives,’ and it reveals ‘the deep truths of growing up working class in 1970s America.’ Another noted ‘Van Alst’s ability to put the reader inside the head of the protagonist’ to reveal ‘the humanity and texture of life among those in the poverty/working class who actually enjoy being there, despite the many drawbacks and dangers.’

“The award is shared by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis, editors of Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose. The collection illuminates worker-voices, and a judge noted, ‘the writing is emotionally strong, creatively composed, and an important addition to the literature of ‘what work is.’ Learning to Heal should be required reading in all nursing schools.’ Another praised ‘[t]he quality and ambition of the poetry.’ A third described Learning to Heal as ‘the best kind of writing working-class studies has to offer: actual workers telling their real-life stories with poetic, authentic, and instructional voices.’”

Ted went first and then I followed.

And this is what I said, for you all:

Thank you very much. It is a privilege to be honoured by ‘The Working Class Study’s Association’ and to share the 2019 ‘Tillie Olsen award for Creative Writing with Ted Van Alst Jr. and his book ‘Sacred Smokes’.

Thank you for including and acknowledging the work of nurses among all of you who are building appreciation of the role of work and exploring working class life and cultures.

Tillie Olsen is particularly close to my heart. Many years ago she penned me a personal thank you letter for my reading of Babette’s Feast on KPFA Pacifica radio. She was always listening to, and for, story and literature.
And Thank You for hosting this 15th Conference at Kent University in Canterbury. Canterbury was my father’s childhood home and where many, many years ago he was caned after being caught playing pop tunes on the Cathedral Organ.

Timing and dosage are everything in medicine and also in life and so I feel particularly fortunate to be able to represent the nurses whose work is included in “Learning to Heal, Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” and edited by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis and Published by Kent State University, (The other Kent,) with a forward by beloved Judy Schaefer, all who have been writing of nursing in poetry and prose for over 30 years “Learning to Heal,” is a jewel and an important piece of nursing and cultural History.

Oft times we choose nursing as a pathway from one social environment to another, usually empowerment and – or – of a social context. But in the course of our training and then our work we are blessed with another kind of change. A movement of the heart and – for in the acts of caring and healing – we are given the opportunity of growing and healing ourselves.

In the forward Judy Schaefer quotes Sister Frances’s phrase from ‘The Silent Treatment,’ “Silence, once learned, is the tabula rasa upon which the art of Nursing thrives; Silence is a language spoken by all. It is the music that goes before every note of love that a nurse’s hands can offer.”

Those of us who are lucky enough to write of our work in this reflective anthology are blessed to give you our gifts again. The 51 nurses I represent tonight have been able to share their stories, their history, and interestingly, they have shared their fears and failures more than their glowing successes. Nurses and writers know how much we learn and grow through our mistakes and humilities. We write to share those stories and give courage and comfort to the nurses to whom we pass the lamp. Though our kind of student life was hard none of us would give up a moment of it.
Particularly there is Minnie Brown Carter’s story of being a ‘coloured’ nurse training and graduation in 1947. It is of particular relevance, a reminder to us all that this fight, in America and through out the world, is not over yet. Minnie, on the other side of 90, is still a voice calling for recognition of fair treatment for all.

There is Judy Schaefer’s delicate voice … from Pennsylvania

I’ve singing lessons

“So let me out of class
Early please
It is time to go
No calculus
Anatomy

Throw a syringe like a dart
Remain alert to peristalsis after breakfast, lunch and dinner
Smile when you enter a room
See one, do one, teach one ….”

Cortney Davis’s soft New England tones purr like a crouching cat,

I learned how cells collide then melt and peel into spheres,
multisided like soccer balls or Rubik’s Cubes.
I stabbed oranges until my hands ran with Juice, then patients
until my hands ran with grace.
I learned the quick save: airway entered upside down and turned into breath.
I learned to kiss death.”

While Jeanne Bryner sings out of her Appalachian heritage in Ohio remembering …

“I have rainbow pills, water from a jug, syringes, needles
kept in shallow drawers. I am here to help the heart’s fist
squeeze and twist its red mop. Pain is a forest. My Hands?
Both ends of a two-man saw, my will, its blade.”

At some point in your lives you may be touched by a nurse’s hand. However much pain you are in, however weary we are, whatever passes between us – it will have been our privilege to care for you.

Thank you very much.

For Cortney and Jeanne, From WCSA and us all

Colleague or Patient

Lilacs in bloom in Regent's park. Photo by WSM

Lilacs in bloom in Regent’s park. Photo by WSM

On a beautiful spring morning my husband and I walked hand in hand through Regent’s Park.

Crossing the Marylebone Road we turned onto Harley Street to be met by our memories.

Could this be the same building that we entered over fifty years ago? Though many times repainted and re-carpeted and now with a lift beside the stairs and we felt a shivering echo of remembrance.

Harley Street W1

Student Nurse Slater 1962

In the mid 1960’s, contraception was not readily available to young unmarried nursing students. Those who became pregnant had to choose between pregnancy, possible marriage and leaving nursing school or terminating the pregnancy to continue training. At our hospital the choices were stark; a tryst with Reg the long-fingered maintenance super, several patient escorts to the Radiology lab or a visit to a discrete gynecologist on Harley Street. I remember a smooth, urbane, gentle young man who was used to caring for the young nurses who had fallen too quickly into the arms of his lustful colleagues. I only saw him one time and had no need to go further into his suite.

Today we took the lift to the third floor and entered a compact, neat office to wait at the reception desk – for the receptionist.

Another young man is pacing. He is shyly courteous and assures me someone will be with me shortly. He is, again, urbane, handsome and impeccably dressed but in this space he seems caged and nervous. The receptionist arrives and I fill in identical forms to those I filled out ten days ago at the doctor’s office. I return the forms to her and handed over a credit card, keeping my fingers crossed that our U.S. health insurance will kick in and help us out.

The young man is still pacing. Trying to put him at his ease I turn and ask: “And what do you do here young man?” Maybe this was not the most comforting of questions but it was the best I could come up with, for, I too, was nervous this morning.
“I’m a plastic surgeon. Are you a colleague or a patient?” He bats the question back at me in defense of himself. He is taken aback by my question, and I by his reply, so we laugh together as I gather my answer.
“I’m both. A nurse and, today, a patient.” I make a quick prayer that he is not on standby for my procedure. We laugh again as I gently ask, “Do you still get nervous?”
“Yes. Always, but I try not to show it.” He knows this is the answer I want to hear. Now our conversation is over and we part, I to sit down and wait, he to pace where he cannot be seen.

Brenda, the nurse who welcomes me, is Irish, old school and cheerful. I expect she greets all her patients as sweetly as she does me. She settles me into a waiting -recovery room and I gown-up with added pale blue socks before Dr Dobbs strides in.

He is a big man, tall and more than a touch over-weight. After a long weekend his nose is sunburnt and his cheeks are ruddy. This is not a man who follows his own doctoral advice. He introduces me to the histology pathologist who will be checking over my bits after they are dug out.

He applies a little light numbing to my lip before I am led into the OR suite. Two more nurses, one from Slovenia, the other from Romania are waiting. Between them they settle me onto the table. The room is air-conditioned cold which is great for them but I need a blanket.

The local anesthetic is given and soon it is: lights, camera and action as Dr. Dobbs begins. I am aware of blood being swabbed from my face and, from time to time, the smell of burning flesh as he cauterizes bleeding vessels. Brenda has a hand on my thigh, softly stroking me as if calming a stalled horse. When she moves around the table she constantly reaches and touches me. She is steady. My eyes are closed as I ponder the difference between numbness and pain.

Dr Dobbs is focused and I can feel when the work is easy and when it is hard. He has entered the sea surrounding the tip of an iceberg, the only visibility sign for two and a half months that something was wrong. This is a tricky, not so little, intrusion in my body and I can feel he is straining hard to get underneath it all. His stomach leans up agains my side and presses into me. His belly is as comforting as Brenda’s touch. I am reassured by his efforts and silence when working and his good manners to his nurses when he calls them.

Stage one is done. I return with my blanket and socks to the waiting – recovery room. Dr. Dobbs takes my bits to the lab while I’m surprised at how shaken I feel. Brenda sits with me a while, popping in and out to give me sips of water from a paper cup.

The pause is over and it is back to surgery for another round. Dr. Dobbs repeats his scraping, as if cleaning all the fruit-flesh from a melon skin, until he is satisfied he has enough and it is time for final closure. Luckily there is no sign of the young plastic surgeon and Dr. Dobbs is relaxing as we come down this home stretch together.
Eight sutures later, a dental pad dressing and I return to recovery.

“You’ll have a sort of hockey-stick scar. It will do very nicely in the skin crease in your face.” He kindly refrains from saying “wrinkle” but I am grateful to have aged in my own skin.

“How long do you want to keep her?” Brenda asks. I want to go home and let my husband get back to work so post-operative instructions and prescriptions are given before Dr. Dobbs sums up this morning, as if to himself, “You were good to be so relaxed. It makes a big difference.” And it felt so, a team effort between doctor, nurses and patient. It was collegial. I hugged each of the nurses as we said good-bye.

Taxis turn onto Harley Street

A black cab turned onto Harley Street as we came out of the building. We climbed in and the taxi driver took us quickly home.

I was laid out and down to begin a week of advanced Sofa-thenics while the next member of the team, my husband as colleague, bent down to caress and take care of me.

Advanced sofa- thenics

Nurse’s Day 2017

Today is May 6th, the beginning of Nurses Week in North America which ends on May 12th, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, and, since 1974, is celebrated as International Nurses Day.

1963 Prize giving @ Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford

Though I will not be buying any Hallmark cards for my nursing chums, I am thinking of my comrades and sisters who are my fellow nurses. Those friends we made, bonded in student years with the sharing of patients as we changed ward rotations; the remembrance of patients who were dear, beloved, or cantankerous, those we recall as much by attitude and character as by disease, those births celebrated and deaths honored. Then there were the working years before reentry to university bringing new adult companions, both student and teacher. Now, in this final quarter of life, I have found a sisterhood of nurse writers and poets. Some still work at the bedside of, or in the clinics with, patients – others teach, and all of us remain nurses within our communities and families. We write of the past, distant and immediate, bringing disease and care into the present.

Nurse Poets reading in Charleston 2016, Veneta Mason, Cortney Davis, Muriel Murch and Jeanne Bryner

 

We are lucky to have found each other and are grateful for the collectors among us: Cortney, Judy and now Jeanne who gather up our words, harvest them to reseed the bare virgin soil of tender young hearts. We write from different geographies of the Americans and the world. Jeannie Bryner from Ohio, Cortney Davis from Connecticut, Venenta Masson from Washington DC, Judy Schaefer from Pensilvania, Madeleine Mysko from Maryland, Patsy Harman from West Virginia.

Before I left California, I took from my bookcase the written work of my nursing friends. It is an impressive display of non-academic writing from professional women and men, and grows each year.

Within my bookcase

In 2018 Kent State University will publish another anthology of nurse writing, ‘This Blessed Field.’ Within this anthology are stories from young nurses, our stories, sharing our innocence with the new nurses of today helping to guide and comfort those following in our footsteps with the light we shine for them.

Each year on May 12th a church service is held in Westminster Abbey in London and at St. Margaret’s Church at East Willow in Hampshire. Wikipedia tells me that during the service, a symbolic lamp is taken from the Nurses’ Chapel in the Abbey and handed from one nurse to another, thence to the Dean, who places it on the High Altar to signifies the passing of knowledge from one nurse to another.
I will be in London that day and will go to the Abbey.

Norfolk bound

Thanks to Nikki Morris, director of Norfolk’s Big C Cancer Charity, The Bell Lap and I are heading to Norfolk this week. It will be wonderful to be speaking to nurses, carers and other health care providers in the afternoon and then reading and in discussion at Kett’s books in the evening.

Events
2016

Muriel Murch High Res 4

Muriel Murch photo by Beatrice Murch

Muriel Murch, Author of The Bell Lap
Wednesday 7 September 5:00 pm

 

 

All of us age and change – and we all watch while those we care about go through their own life changes.

Muriel Murch’s new book The Bell Lap (Taylor and Francis) shares human stories of caring and being cared for that will ring true for all of us – and the bigger medical issues such as living longer vs ending well are timely debate for those in the medical profession.

Tickets £3, refundable against the purchase of any book.

Kett’s Books is delighted to be donating profits from the sale of this book to the Big C, Norfolk’s Cancer Charity.

BELL LAP

The Bell Lap Stories for Compassionate Nursing Care

The Bell Lap event in New York City

INVITE to The Bell Lap at the NACOn Wednesday May 25, Roz Chast author of “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” will join me in discussion, talking about “The Bell Lap,” and some of the moments in-between. We will be in the Sculpture Court at The National Arts Club from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. If you are in New York and interested in joining us, please RSVP to: murielmurch@gmail.com

Cortney Davis interviews Muriel Murch

finished cropped shotCortney Davis is a nurse, prolific poet and writer. She is the co-editor with Judy Schaefer of Between the Heartbeats and Intensive Care, More Poetry and Prose by Nurses both published by University of Iowa Press. Author of ten books, her latest work When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images was published by Kent State University in 2015

Muriel MurchMuriel Murch is the author of two books, a personal narrative, Journey in the Middle of the Road: One Woman’s Path through a Mid-Life Education, and most recently a short story collection, The Bell Lap: Stories for Compassionate Nursing Care. Muriel is also a registered nurse, a radio show producer, a world traveler, and a beautiful tall English woman.

Cortney Davis: Muriel, which came first for you, the desire to be a nurse or the call to writing?
Muriel Murch: The Desire, The Call, Oh my goodness Cortney. First though I have to smile at your introduction, a tall woman, because, from a very young age, it soon became clear to my mother, who was a mere five feet and ten inches, that I would be ‘too tall’. She worried that I was going to have as hard a time as she did growing up. Surprisingly my height didn’t bother me as much as it did her. There wasn’t anything I could do about my six foot one inch height and somehow, through laughing with those who laughed at, I slowly found a way through adolescence.
When I was fifteen my father died and the question of ‘What to do with Ann’ was a very real problem for my mother. Widowed at thirty-nine it appeared that her own upbringing had not provided her with skills that she could turn into a meaningful job. However she soon found work driving for, and then organizing, the Hospital Car Service, a volunteer organization comprised of mostly retirees who drove patients to doctor and hospital appointments throughout the county. She was, of course, fabulous at it.
I was tall, gangly and bouncy and didn’t speak French therefore not good material for a debutante. I was clumsy and out doorsy and only passed through our kitchen to the nursery and so Cordon Bleu cooking school seemed a waste of time. I couldn’t spell and had failed most of the academic exams from school so secretarial college was not an option either.
At home from boarding school I spent every free moment on the farm. In order to wean me from this rough and unsuitable pursuit the good ‘Dr. Riley’, now a close family friend, began to take me with him on his rounds. I quickly became curious about the people we saw, their lives as well as their illnesses. So it was put to me that when I left school I should work as a cadet (kitchen maid in uniform) at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford. Then, when I turned eighteen, join the next incoming class of student nurses. I was far too timid to think of going to London and the big teaching (and husband catching) hospitals. A year later I may have regretted my timidity but The Royal Surrey County Hospital was the right place for me. There, I trained and worked as a staff nurse until I left for New York and White Plains Hospital, again subconsciously choosing a non-central hospital.
As to writing, I have always been a voracious reader. I learnt to read at a very young age, though became aware that even after finishing a book there were words, mostly names, that I couldn’t pronounce, never mind spell. English language, punctuation and sentence structure were, and remain, a challenge for me. I can remember when I first learnt to say the complete alphabet. I was so exited – but I couldn’t tell anyone – I was twelve years old! It was the literature classes, with their stories that were my salvation.
Hidden, and secretly, I began to write my own stories as a child. I was also captivated with old, wild poetry. I didn’t understand it all but something about the rhythm of the words comforted and uplifted me. I read a lot of poetry as a child and adolescent. But never wrote any until I was becoming menopausal!
I did write in nursing school. As well as our yearly classroom blocks we all had monthly tutorials. These were one on one session with a Sister Tutor, similar to university tutors. It was here that I learnt to read, discuss, analyze and write about a subject. I became fascinated with psychology and must have read every textbook on the subject I could find. Sister Boisher was wise enough to let me explore, occasionally handing me another book while guiding nudging and questioning the questions, and answers, I was exploring. It was for this work that I was given a prize for physiology. I had never, ever, won a prize for anything in my life before. The prize was Medicine in its Human Setting, by A. Clarke-Kennedy. That little book has been beside me ever since.
The years of young love, marriage and family only allowed for letter writing once a week to my mother and journal scribbling, often in a ‘blue book’ When times were hard, when I didn’t see my way forward on any front, it was often these wild, anguished outpourings that saved me. I hope they are all burnt now. Many years later I found that poetry could produce the same way out of pain. Most of the poetry I write today comes from the pain I see or the pain I feel.

CD: Your work has been included in several anthologies of creative writing by nurses, and nurses’ writing has gained both popularity and praise in the medical humanities arena. Do nurses have something to tell us that are unique, different from what physicians or others in the medical field might say?
MM: I do think nurses have something different to say than physicians and maybe that is because I think nurses and physicians oft times see different things when they look at their patients.
In my nearly thirty years as a radio host I was, and still am, fortunate enough to choose authors to work with. Sometimes it is the writer’s new works and oft-times it is medical in focus. I have also been able to travel and pursue the writers I really want to talk with and whose work I want to share with an audience. Many times that has meant tracking down people like yourself and other nurse writers on the East Coast. The physician I was thrilled to spend time with was, of course, Richard Selzer. I think of Selzer as being the writing mentor to all of us health care professionals who write. Since his earliest medical writing Selzer showed us the whole being of the patient, the body, spirit and soul. How did he do that? He did it by following Chekhov and Keats into writing literature. Selzer goes beyond the anecdotal; let me give you an example, or the case history, into story to bring his subjects to life. There are two physicians I would still like to have conversations with, Abraham Verghese author of Cutting for Stone and Atul Gawande who wrote Complications and Being Mortal: Medicine and what Matters in the End. Just out and being devoured on the same wavelength is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Interestingly all of these physician’s families’ come from the Indian continent and share the bonds of close family and immigration.

CD: The Bell Lap is not your first publication. What led you to write your first book, Journey in the Middle of the Road: One Woman’s Path to a Midlife Education?
MM: Since stylus first scratched papyrus the sharing of information and the efforts to stay connected have often been through letters. Journey came from those letters we wrote in boarding school and then the airmail letters of the sixties. (There is a piece about this ‘You’ve Got Mail’ on murielmurch.com) Letters were always an important was of staying connected and the letter writing habit was entrenched early in my life. In the 1980s we were in England for two years and our older children were moving on with their own lives. I wrote to each of them, one a week, make a copy of those letters without repeating myself in each letter. The idea being that eventually the family could piece all the letters together and make sense of those years.
It turned out to be a difficult time and, when we returned to California, I decided to go to college and upgrade my nursing degree from an RN to a BsN. I had visions of entering academia but it quickly became clear I was not cut out for that life style! But I couldn’t stop writing more letters. I wrote to the family, friends and my mother and some to a dear deceased uncle of my husband’s. It was very much on the lines of Dear Daddy Longlegs written by Jean Webster in 1912, a book I grew up with from my mother’s bookcase. When I graduated from San Francisco State University I took off for a month to a friend’s house in Paris with, as you can imagine, reams of pages. A sort of enforced ‘writers retreat’ but with half an eye out for their teenage son alone at home for the summer. During that time I could, and did, slash and burn, cutting the manuscript to maybe a third. Then, when I thought I had a narrative that could be of help to those who shared the common threads for women balancing family, relationships, education and desires, I somehow found a publisher and Journey came to life. The response to Journey showed that it was helpful to those who read it. Miriam Selby of Sibyl Publications eventually retired and handed back the book rights to all her authors. Roberto Santucho helped me reissue Journey as a book on demand with a new snazzy cover and new introduction.

CD: Did the stories in The Bell Lap also come from your nursing experiences? Can you tell me what your favorite story in this new book is . . . and why?
MM: What is ‘our nursing experience?’ This is a question that comes up for me every once in a while. Because, I believe, that those of us who are nurses, in a deep sense of the word, are always nursing. We are always observing, taking in the whole picture of the person before us. Do you notice that? We can’t stop watching. I think this is something all health care professionals do.
So to answer this question I would say, yes, the stories come from my ‘nursing experience’ because my life is nursing. Writing with a nurse’s eye maybe.
A favorite story. How can there be? Each story is precious until itself, each a new love affair begun from memory, a glance, a phrase an incident witnessed. Each is like a grain of sand swallowed by an oyster. It rolls around, irritating for a while before growing into something beautiful. I love them all. How can I not?

CD: Medicine and nursing are changing alongside, and because of, rapid changes in technology, scientific knowledge, and the financial demands of the business end of healthcare. But are we missing something in the way we care for patients today, in spite of all our gains? I guess I’m wondering if you think nursing has changed, and if so how that might affect the nurse / patient relationship.
MM: In the last few years almost all the articles written about new medical procedures begin with the economical implications of the changes and advances being discussed. These comments always come before the benefit to the institution and the physician, nurse, or caregiver, followed by an afterthought, oh, the benefit to the patient. Cost is imperative it seems to the running of for profit or not hospitals. It is a little scary.
The most expensive item in any administrative budget is staff and, arguably, a good patient to staff ratio is expensive in numbers if not always in pay scale. And we see cuts made all the time. Cutting nurses time and money, making them spend time documenting their accountability takes time away from the patient. Cutting down and out on senior long-term staff with deep experience and wisdom who have formed and led unit teams is a shortsighted way of saving money. Cutting those full time nurses off from their benefits leaves no team to support the patients, the ward/floor and ultimately the hospital. Nurses do not go out on strike because they love their hospitals.
Recently I read an article from The Guardian, January 22 2016 “A day in the UK’s busiest maternity unit” by Zoe Williams. The article is about the Liverpool Women’s Hospital. Williams talked with the Matron Jenny Butters, Ward Manager Sarah McGrath and Dr. Joanne Topping. It is Topping who says, “ There is an amount of money we are given to do the work we need to do and it’s not enough.” At the Liverpool Women’s Hospital midwives, nurses and doctors seem to all work in a cooperative atmosphere and it sounds an enviable work situation worthy of adaption in other institutions.
During a family hospital admission we were asked, “Who is the patient advocate?” The nurse used to be considered the patient advocate and now that cannot always be said to be true. But patient advocacy is a part of what we do, what we are for the patients whom we serve. There must be cultural differences throughout the world but I think we must always hold patient advocacy as part of who we are.
One of the best improvements I have witnessed was in St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco at the change of nursing shifts. Somehow time was budgeted in for rounds. Two nurses visit each patient in their room one handing off a report to the other in front of the patient. I have never seen anything like this before. Even if words were spoken outside of the patients room there was this time for all three to speak together. If that happened in every hospital and at each shift change the patient care flow would be amazing.
Balancing the art and science of nursing has always been hard and today seems even more so. Sometimes I think the ‘best’ nursing opportunities, those times when as a nurse we can be mindful of procedures and yet give comfort and safety to our patients, lie in clinics and outpatient procedures. I think it is harder to be a hands on nurse in today’s hospital settings unless you are in a one-on-one situations. But really I don’t know. I do know that many, many nurses work hard at finding ways to be at their patient’s bedsides when they need it.

CD: You were born in England and educated as a nurse there. You’ve also had some nursing education in the U.S. What are the similarities and differences in nursing education here and across the pond?
MM: I think the differences started to appear when three-year diploma programs began to be replaced by four-year batcholorate B.Sc. programs in the US. There became a real division between the different levels of education, experience and job opportunities. I still saw this in evidence in the late 1980s rotating through a teen pregnancy clinic at San Francisco General. Diploma RN’s were doing the basic intake work while the Midwifery MSc RN’s were doing full exams. This was different from the late 1960s and early 1970s where four, all of us diploma RN’s, worked in a rural general practice, and we all took complete care for our patients. As times changed most of us went onto get BSN degrees.
In the UK in the 1960s we were patient bedside trained, with classroom times of four weeks in our first year, six in our second and third along with our monthly tutorials. Then this was pretty much the reverse of the American System.
In the sixties, when cardiac monitoring and resuscitation was just beginning, you could see the difference. One evening shift at the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital a beeper rang and two of us rushed to the room. My American partner checked the monitor, I looked to the patient, and then we both began the same procedure. At that time we were also working with a Canadian nurse and we all agreed that she seemed to have been trained in the best balance of both worlds. Somehow that seemed very Canadian!
Eventually, and I’m not really sure when this happened, England brought in the same educational system as the US. Nursing schools are attached to the city universities and patient care is outsourced to the local teaching hospitals. Now I think the teaching is very similar in the US and UK.

CD: I believe that most nurses and physicians, in the course of their work, experience many moments of both fear and transcendence. What was your most frightening moment in nursing? And your most wondrous? Have you written about them?
MM: Fear and Transcendence. Good words Cortney. There are many moments that carry those emotions. A side lesson if you will of our training was to subdue that fear into right-action but we were not always ready for what incident came our way.
Write about them? No, not until now that is.
I think, for me, the first really fearful moment occurred when I was a new Staff Nurse. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was in charge of Victoria, the Woman’s Surgical Ward. Methodically I was moving through the ward tidying the patient’s beds in preparation of the afternoon visiting hours. I came to the bedside of a young woman who was supposed to have been discharged the day before and only stayed in as her parents were not back from their holiday. She had fallen off of her Vespa Scooter and suffered, what we considered, a mild concussion. But when I reached her bed she was confused and fading. Fear gripped and then released me. Rushing back to the desk I managed to phone for a doctor. Luckily, for my patient, there was a neurosurgeon in the house about to operate on a chap who had fallen off a ladder at work! The surgeon immediately came to the ward, looked at my girl and barked out, ‘Transport to Atkinson Morley Hospital Stat.’ before rushing back to the OR and his waiting patient. In minutes the Ambulance men came and lifted my girl, now unconscious, onto the gurney. I grabbed her notes and off we went. The memory of the drive through the city of Guildford on a Saturday afternoon, not watching the road, but watching her, trying to keep her with me, is still crystalline in my mind. Once we reached the Atkinson Morley Hospital my patient was whisked away. I remember the intake nurses’ focus and it was hard to tell from their expressions what the outcome would be for my girl. I stood in the emergency admitting room, at a loss, until the ambulance driver found me. ‘Come on Nurse, Let’s get you a nice cup of tea before we head home.’ And so we did.
Wondrous. Those moments are so special.
The quick incision for a Caesarian Section, before the pause, looking into the abdominal cavity with the baby still in the sac, the moment before the surgeon’s hands enter and lift the baby into this world.
Life passages, into and out of this world.
Caring for Naomi, an eleven your old gypsy child with Down’s syndrome who had an infected knee. The Romany family came and camped at the hospital. Naomi was a wild child but somehow she would let me tend her. I would sing, she would sing, and somehow with her arms around my neck I could dress her wound. One morning Matron came though on her rounds while this was happening. She looked over the screen that was giving us some privacy, and, as she turned away, I saw her smile. The family outside the ward saw her smile and smiled too. I think then I knew I was becoming a nurse.
More lately I think it is to look back at one’s place in the history and the progression of nursing practices. We are all stepping-stones, each unto the other. In the late 1960s and early 1970s I worked in a rural General Medical Practice. We were three doctors and four nurses. Within that practice we made house calls, did mostly home birth deliveries and cared for those who wished to stay at home through to the end of their lives. Our practice, others like it, and the lay midwives of the time all put pressure on the more normal hospital birthing procedures that were then in place. Slowly the hospitals and other doctors began to change, allowing husbands and labor coaches into the delivery rooms. The delivery rooms became labor suites, breast-feeding was encouraged and eventually The University of California opened a school of midwifery. One nurse from our practice, a third-generation midwife, was among the first four students admitted to the school.
When my mother-in-law was first diagnosed with cancer I said that, when the time came, I would go back and take care of her if that was what she wanted. Two years later the call came and I picked up our fifteen-month old son and went to New York. Her physician, who was the same age as Katharine, also made house calls. He agreed to help me care for her at home though this was a first for him in his long New York Practice. With the support of her friends and family, Katharine stayed at home through to the end of her illness. The doctor, Will Norton, was due to retire, and went on to work with Dame Cicely Saunders, becoming one of the founders of Hospice in America.
I think those things, when I look back, help me feel that yes, gosh, maybe I made a difference. Each moment was wondrous in its own way.

CD: Muriel, how are you promoting “The Bell Lap?” Let us know where you might be appearing, and where readers might find your books.
The Bell LapMM: Radcliffe Press first accepted The Bell Lap but just at that time Taylor and Francis Press an arm of CRC Press absorbed Radcliffe. Luckily they took The Bell Lap along with Radcliffe. So now The Bell Lap is part of a medical press and that somehow feels like coming home. I’m doing whatever I can for The Bell Lap, as I believe it has a place in the tome of general literature as well as in the classroom.
Publication date is March 16th from Taylor and Francis and CRC Press and is also be available from Amazon

Soon there will be an events page up on my website, murielmurch.com and I will be adding to that as I go along.
Events already booked on the West and East Coast of the US as well as some in the UK include:
March 15th Tuesday KWMR. FM radio 10.30 – 11 a.m. PST Turning Pages with Host Lyons Filmer
Match 26th Saturday 10 a.m. PST West Coast Live with host Sedge Thomson
March 28th or April 4th Monday KPFA FM Monday 3 p.m. PST Cover to Cover with host Richard Wolinsky
March 30th St. Mary’s Hospital, San Francisco Evening reading, Q&A and book signing. More information to follow.
April 9th Saturday KWMR Fund raising event Evening at the Bolinas Community Center. A play Reading of ‘Dr. Patel Comes to Tea.’ followed by a Q & A with host Davia Nelson from The Kitchen Sisters of NPR
May 26th Thursday an open evening at the National Arts Club in New York City. Host Ros Chas of The New Yorker and author of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
May 31st in Charleston with the ‘Nurse Poets’ at the Piccolo Arts Festival and sponsored by the Medical University of South Carolina.
Dates still TBA
NPR Science program
KHNS Radio, Haines Alaska
BBC Woman’s Hour Book reading and interview with Jenny Murrey.
Book reading and signing Waterstones, Book Shop, Farnham, Surrey.
Book reading, discussion and signing for Primrose Hill Library with Primrose Hill Book Shop
And do ask your local bookshop to order at least two copies, one for you and one to show on their shelf!

CD: Thank you! Before we close, is there anything else you’d like to add, any subject that we haven’t touched upon that you’d like to address?
MM: If we struggle, and oft times fail, to learn lessons from history maybe at least we can learn understanding and acceptance of other people from story. Story will pull at the heart as well as the mind.
Yesterday, browsing through the library of the Royal College of Nursing, I watched young and senior nurses studying. I felt that along with their sense of purpose for themselves, their work and for their patients they maybe have been a quiet acknowledgement of the nurses in whose footsteps they tread.
In the last few years we have seen some wonderful writing, and stories from physicians and patients alike. The Bell Lap stories are for everyone who cannot write their own.