'Everyone is pulling together': poems by NHS workers to raise money for Covid-19 appeal

Anthology These Are the Hands collects poems from across the health service, from doctors to cleaners

Nurse Audrey Ardern-Jones writes of her colleagues around the world “who in fog-grey mists of locked-up wards / talk gently to the confused, the paranoid”. Consultant paediatric intensivist Colin Begg reflects on a night shift, and the “complexity / and compassion, / heat and harsh lighting / and at its centre, a person / trying not to die”. And medical student Anna Harvey describes working on a donor’s body, “The flesh too different from our own to compare / saturated with preservative.”

All are contributors to a new poetry anthology, These Are the Hands, that collects poems from NHS doctors and nurses at all stages of their careers, as well as others whose vital work keeps the health service going, including cleaners, interpreters and clerical staff.

Edited by Hackney GP Dr Katie Amiel and Deborah Alma, AKA the Emergency Poet, These Are the Hands is intended to offer “unflinchingly honest and intimate accounts from the people who care for us from the moment of birth to the end of life”. All proceeds from the sale of the book are going to NHS Charities Together’s urgent Covid-19 appeal.

“I wanted the book to give an insight into the experiences of people at the heart of the NHS, from the student nurse at the start of his career, to the cardiologist on the eve of her retirement. It also felt really important to give a voice to those whose vital work is often unseen and unsung, for example, domestic cleaning staff, admin staff, laboratory workers and clinical scientists,” said Amiel.

“Above all, these poems are about our shared humanity and the compassion and care that lies at the heart of the NHS and in all our lives. This feels more important now than ever.”

The GP said that the coronavirus crisis was “the most difficult challenge any of us working in the NHS have faced, and we are constantly having to adapt to a quickly changing situation. But there is also an incredible sense of everyone pulling together to do whatever we can to support our patients and help each other through this crisis.”

Poets including Michael Rosen, Roger McGough, Lemn Sissay and Wendy Cope have also donated poems to the collection. In his foreword, Rosen – whose poem gives the collection its name – writes that the NHS workers’ poems “are full of moments of contact between practitioner and patient, full of the thoughts that often these practitioners can’t share at that point of contact. They let us into the hidden places of their minds in these intimate moments.”

Alma, who prescribes poems from the back of a 1970s ambulance as the Emergency Poet, and recently set up a “poetry pharmacy” in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, said that poetry helped connect readers “intimately from one person to another, as though it were a friend”.

“I know the book may not appear to offer any solace, but I think it does, in showing the depth of passionate care and commitment underneath the professional demeanour of those who work in the NHS,” said Alma. “I have shared poetry a lot over the years with people who are frightened, in despair or who cannot see the way forward. I have seen how poetry can do so much; to change a mood, to challenge, to inspire, to act as solace, blessing or prayer.”

“This is the writing wing of the NHS. This is where the open-heart surgery is. What a beautiful operation,” said Sissay of the anthology, while Stephen Fry called it “a wonderful anthology to celebrate the NHS, which is itself the best poem a country has ever written.”

• These Are the Hands is available to order online from Fair Acre Press and from most booksellers.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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