Hazel McHaffie

Covid

Caring in a time of Covid

Yes, I know, I know … I went to sessions on this topic at the Hay Festival, and here I am again, attending more of the same at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Sad soul. But for me it was well worth the element of repetition to hear the important messages spelled out so clearly by those who really know. We do have to learn from the horrors, and now is the time to do so. Just this week our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced concrete plans to begin a judge-led inquiry into how things were managed in Scotland, by the end of this year. Sometimes, though, in the face of relentless coverage of the statistics and long term consequences, it can be hard to see beyond the negativity.

The line up of panellists included Dr Rachel Clarke (palliative care specialist and ex-journalist) and Kate Mosse (novelist and unofficial carer of three elderly relatives) again, but joining them was Dr Gavin Francis (Scottish surgeon and GP). The two doctors have both been working actively on the frontline throughout the last eighteen months, and deserved the spontaneous applause from the live audience. But they were quick to identify the reality: caring is a privilege.

Nevertheless, the deficiencies in the response to the impending crisis, and the slowness of the powers-that-be to mobilise appropriate measures to deal with it, did stir their anger. Indeed it was this pent up frustration that led to the books they wrote.

Much of what they said was known to me, but still shocked. And I was horrified to learn that, not only has the number of unpaid carers escalated colossally during the pandemic, largely because almost all official care stopped, but that they were left largely unsupported. As were young people with special needs, and those with dementia. What kind of a price have vulnerable people paid for this failure? The toll on mental health especially has been devastating, as we know.The full consequences will only emerge gradually.

On the other hand, it was heart-warming to hear that frontline workers had themselves been buoyed up by witnessing the best of human nature too. And as Kate Mosse said, it’s what we all want: a society that looks after each other, that cares, that pulls together. Dare we hope lessons will have been learned for next time? Those who work in the medical world seem sure of one fact: there will be a next time. Sobering thought, huh?

It’s been great to be part of this iconic Festival once again, albeit in a hybrid form this year. A big step up from the cancellation in 2020. And I personally salute all the teams working behind the scenes to make it work – almost without a hiccup this time for me! I guess the person who inadvertently broke a connection will be hiding their mortification in a dark corner somewhere. Come out, come out, whoever you are; all is forgiven.

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Many Different Kinds of Love

Listening to Michael Rosen speaking at the Hay Festival was enough to make me immediately order his book about surviving Covid: Many Different Kinds of Love. And read it as soon as it arrived! It’s an account like no other.

He was a whisker away from death because he didn’t fit the criteria (at the time) for serious illness. But thanks to the intervention of a skilled and determined GP friend, Michael bypassed inappropriate advice to stay at home, and was whipped into hospital with a dangerously low level of oxygen in his blood. So ill was he, indeed, that he spent 47 days in Intensive Care, much of it in an induced coma on a ventilator.

During this time, even though they were working ridiculous hours under extreme pressure, often way outside their comfort zones, the staff took the trouble to pen personal, encouraging, reassuring messages in a diary. Their entries make fascinating reading. Learning of their care, seeing them in action, Michael was reduced to tears by their devotion and love; it was akin to that of a parent keeping vigil with a sick child.
They aren’t my parents … It’s a kindness I can hardly grasp.’
Michael was, of course, a celebrity patient, a well known and loved children’s author and poet; they were willing him to return to his natural milieu of writing and performing again for others.

Reading their words, I was personally struck by the vast range of occupations these novice writers came from. Here they were in a high-tech, fast-paced, highly specialised environment, a unit packed to the gunnels, surrounded by patients presenting with a hitherto unknown infectious disease affecting multiple systems, and they were, in their other lives, speech and language therapists, physios, children’s nurses, school nurses, infection control personnel, urology specialists, even dental hygienists!  Mind-blowing!

After ventilation, Michael spent another long period hovering somewhere between life and death, and it was his wife, Emma, who brought him through to the other side of this, surrounding him with love and the favourite soundtracks of his life.

It was only then, as he re-entered consciousness and self awareness, that he could pick up the threads of the story for himself.

Reviewing that time while he hovered on the brink of life/death, he himself could see the humour in his situation.
Of the constant monitoring he says:
There is now a ledger telling
the story of my ups and downs.
I have become an account.

He was mesmerised by the multiple tasks these caring hands accomplished.
Your hands speak.
Touch is a language.
Each palm
each fingertip
is a line from your stories.

He saw the ‘Land of the Dead’ as having taken bits of him prisoner. (His left eye and ear are still markedly impaired.)
They’re waiting for me to come back.
The ear is listening.
The eye is the lookout.

Recovery of strength and will power became a painful inch by inch struggle.  Early on, trying to will his leg to move, was like speaking to a blank space.

As he improved physically he became alive to humour around him.
The nurse tells Peter in the bed opposite,
that his urine is dark.
‘The times are dark,’ he says.

But at each stage of progress Michael feared this was as good as it got …
… now in a wheelchair – is this me?
… using a zimmer frame – is this me?
At intervals: I’m not going to get better – am I?
… remaining on one level in the house  – I’m 74. Maybe I’ve become a kind of 90 ...
Watching and listening to the monumental struggle made me value in a new way his personal appearance at the Hay Festival this year. He had learned from OTs how to own his frailty.

And when he eventually went home:
I am not sure I am me.
I can’t see as I used to see.
I can’t hear as I used to hear.
My legs feel like cardboard tubes,
filled with porridge.

And ‘I’m not sure I am me’ became a bit of a refrain.

But he did get home and little by little he did gain strength and mobility. Returning as an outpatient:
Woman at the door asks me
if I want anything sharpening.
My wits, I say.
(I didn’t.
My wits aren’t sharp enough.)

By now you’ll have got the sense of the style of writing – short staccato entries, written as poetry, as if that is all his recovering brain could handle. Lots and lots of white space. But underpinning it, the irrepressible wit and wisdom for which he is known and loved.

All perfectly illustrated by Chris Riddell‘s wonderfully evocative and delicate pen and ink drawings.

I was pleased to see that, even though he’s so conscious of the great debt he owes the NHS, Michael’s not afraid to criticise the government and scientists where they got it wrong. Perhaps he sums up the whole handling of the pandemic as well as his personal progress when he says:
And it never stops:
we are always becoming.

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Hay Festival: second instalment

They say authors should wait a decent interval before starting to write about pandemics. Well, who exactly are ‘they’, these authorities who know such things, huh?

Even before Covid struck, Val McDermid had already written a radio play about a scenario where a pathogen appeared which no drugs could treat, so she was way ahead of the game. Didn’t stop her publishing it. As she said: There’s nothing more dramatic than the end of the world as we know it.

She then collaborated with a graphic artist, Kathryn Briggs, to produce a graphic novel based on the play: Resistance. Their discussion at the Hay Book Festival with Louise Welsh about how they worked together, was both insightful and humorous. When Professor Welsh said that no person had been left unchanged by the experience of the last fifteen months, she hit on a fascinating fact leading into a fertile line of thought.

Lionel Shriver had just started her latest novel when the pandemic struck, and she’s woven topical lines and references into her story of a couple in their fifties, both medical professionals, contemplating a joint suicide when they reach 80. What would they miss/be spared? What possibilities might present? Dementia? A nightmarish Cuckoo’s Nest retirement home? The end of civilisation? A cure for aging? She has written, and included in the book, twelve alternative scenarios, all with different but parallel endings. As you know, assisted suicide has been an issue very much in my sights for many years, so I’m looking forward to reading  Should we Stay or Should we Go.  I loved the bit she read aloud, and reviews tell us it’s packed with humour as well as provocative thoughts.

And the pandemic theme even cropped up in a session where comedian/actor Frank Skinner was interviewed by fellow comedian/actor/satirist Marcus Brigstocke about his book, A Comedian’s Prayer Book. Skinner is a devout Roman Catholic and spoke movingly of his commitment, and response to taunts, revealing wide reading and studying alongside much heart-searching. Brigstocke said at one point: ‘I think you are this pandemic’s Galileo!‘ Skinner certainly had clever answers for anything thrown at him, chortling at the excitement of not being quite sure where any sentence would end up, but he came across as respectful of others’ opinions, non judgemental, eloquent and measured, whilst openly sharing his own moral code. The whole event was a magical mix of laugh-out-loud fun with serious and warming reflection. And a fitting ‘last Hay event’ for me this year.

Massive thanks to all who brought this fantastic festival to our homes. I for one, hope it will continue to offer an online version.

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Hay Book Festival

I’m like a pig in muck this week!! Hay Book Festival is online again. Wahey! They’ve already reached upwards of 2 million people, and I feel privileged to be one of those visiting and enjoying such thought-provoking and stimulating events. I’m immensely grateful to the team that ensures it happens. They’ve had more than their fair share of technical glitches unfortunately, but I think we’re all acclimatising to those kinds of issues in this era of Zoom. Puts our own mishaps into perspective.

In this first week, I’ve already listened to vaccine hesitancy, the effects of the pandemic, motherhood, grief, the first human cyborg (who has MND), deafness, adoption, racial discrimination … I won’t bore you with a rundown on them all, but three really stood out as exceptionally memorable for me. (Please excuse the quality of the photo – screenshot during the performances, so no time for finesse!)

The title, Life and Death with Covid, sums up one brilliant session. Dr Rachel Clarke, Palliative Care Specialist/author, who’s always good value, was in the chair and sensitively and confidently steered the conversation between herself, the legendary author/poet/presenter Michael Rosen, and a specialist in critical care and anaesthetics/author, Dr Jim Down.

The two doctors spoke eloquently about the impact of the pandemic on staff, and the imperative and willingness to care –  really care – for all their patients, be they serial killers or prime ministers, to the end of their lives. Their selfless dedication shone through. Michael Rosen spoke from the Covid patient’s angle. He survived 48 days in intensive care and 3 months in hospital, and compared the attention he was given to the love that drives a father to sit all night beside the bed of his sleeping son. The NHS, in his judgement, is the most ‘caring collective cooperative thing’ he could ever imagine – polar opposite of the Holocaust that killed so many of his relations. One of the most engrossing literary events ever. I simply HAD to buy all three books: Many Different Kinds of Love (Rosen), Breathtaking (Clarke), Life Support (Down). Reviews will doubtless follow on this blog! They arrived lovingly encased in red tissue paper too!

I’ve heard Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell on the topic of their depression before – both appeared again this year with new books to talk about, but new to me was travel writer and teacher of creative writing, Horatio Clare, talking about his mental health experience.

In Heavy Light: A journey through madness, mania and healing, he has eloquently captured the reality of being sectioned/detained when he developed bipolar disorder, an action he believes saved him. And he really underlined the importance of listening to the patient and tailoring care to individual need. What an articulate and sympathetic speaker. I was riveted.

Then there was Rev Richard Coles speaking to psychotherapist Julia Samuel (the ‘Queen of Grief’ as Richard described her). He spoke eloquently of the devastation, and the powerful emotions of anger, guilt, emptiness, he has experienced following the death of his beloved husband David, who was an alcoholic as well as fellow priest. No empty platitudes or trite sayings or pious hopes from him! And what sensitivity he must bring to bereaved parishioners. Julia Samuel concluded with poignant accuracy that, though he is still grieving acutely, he is taking David with him into a planned future of ministering to prisoners where the effects of addiction are seen as their harshest. A wonderfully honest and moving conversation, laced with humour, about a subject that needs more openness and candour. I’ve heard Coles speaking before; here I think he was at his best.

To be continued …

 

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