Every patient tells a story. It is written on our bodies when we don’t have the words to share.
I’m honoured to present the third and final issue of ‘Remember to Rest’, a collection of stories, non-fiction and poetry that we curated in response to a call for submissions on Healthy Communities, received from writers around the world.
When I took on this role, with my co-editors Jo and Kevin, I was humble as to whether I could manage the great breadth of work and do justice to the stories with which we were entrusted. I’m grateful to Jo and Kevin for sharing this journey with me, for giving their care and insight into the pieces. Jo named the collection ‘Remember to Rest’, and Kevin discovered the ‘savage beauty’ in the works and brought this to light.
It’s been a passionate journey; every story and piece that we read taught us something about healthcare, illness and caring in communities. We learned about the ways that we are treated differently, and we learned, most importantly, about what we share. We were shown the stark realities of socio-economic inequalities, the burden and discrimination faced by the elderly, the demands on the carer combined with the care of the self.
These issues affect me all the time, in my daily work with patients and their families in my hospital. As well as a writer, I’m a full-time NHS doctor in the UK and worked full-time and frontline throughout the pandemic, in ITU, in A&E, and in the acute medical wards. I knew the story of Covid and documented the story of grief and loss within the hospital. My belief was always that better work and better days would be ahead of us. I was happy to read stories which moved us on from the pandemic, with hope.
This is what I read in ‘Still Hopeful: Connecting Through Poetry’ where the author shares the universal story of what we went through during the pandemic, the fear and isolation, towards the personally redeeming and cathartic discovery of writing poetry as the conduit for hope, as the writer ‘attempts to give meaning to a strange time’. And ‘This Coronavirus Business’ tells the story of an older couple navigating the new dynamic of a life post-retirement: ‘A lifetime of rest stretched out before him; I was scared he wouldn’t know how to survive.’ In this story, the threat of the pandemic brings the husband back to his better self as he finds himself needed by others and finds his vocation in helping his neighbours, told with humour and tenderness.
The poems in the collection slide into our sleeping, reaching selves. There is haunting, wild beauty in ‘Night Shift’: ‘We are the unbroken in you’, unfolding during a fentanyl-fuelled night in intensive care. And there is a slippage between the lines dividing sleep and death in ‘Swimming vs Drowning’: ‘The undiscovered self, the water’.
The harsh economic difficulties of paying for healthcare in Ghana are narrated with emotion and despairing pragmatism in ‘We Bury Our Sickness and Pray’ where the writer explains why those close to them do not seek medical help sooner: ‘It is easy to judge when you have never gone to bed on an empty stomach.’ And the role of the family in caring for patients where hospital resources are limited is touchingly described in ‘God Don’t Need Long Pants’ where the love a patient receives is seen by the personal and practical items of daily caring and grooming arranged by family at the bedside. This is a story cracked open by a resilient grandmother’s voice, soaked with caustic humour: ‘Take mine, but I am coming for yours.’
The importance of the carer in healthy communities can’t be overestimated as the contrasting fiction pieces demonstrate. ‘In the Womb’ is told by a young gay man who is supporting his mother through her chemotherapy, with the reversal of roles that entails: ‘You’re always trying to protect me’, his mother simply states. And ‘The Failing Heart’ shows the determination of a mother to secure an operation for her daughter, overcoming extraordinary financial and social obstacles, unafraid to reach out in hope.
And finally, ‘The Kwaja Sira’s Curse’ deals with difficult and compelling themes that are not often shared in fiction from Pakistan, with representation from the hijra community: ‘They wanted me to pretend manhood.’ As a writer born in Pakistan and with an eldest daughter who is trans, I’m grateful to Kevin for selecting and editing this story, which was originally planned for his second edition.
As a doctor, my greatest discoveries involve seeking what I love in my patients, my colleagues, my community and my work.
And I hope that you find something to love in these pieces as each writer has taken the most precious part of themselves, cut it from the place closest to their hearts and laid it out for you to read. I hope you are touched by the tragedy, the tenderness, the humour and the hope that we have offered you.
And I hope that you find your own stories, written in your bodies, with health and happiness.
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