Michael Rosen writes poem in tribute to NHS nurses after Covid recovery

Children’s author who spent 48 days in hospital with virus calls NHS ‘a brilliant and wonderful invention’

Michael Rosen doesn’t remember much of his 48 days in an intensive care ward when he was struck down with Covid-19 two years ago. But thanks to a patient diary diligently kept by his nurses, the poet and former children’s laureate knows how faithfully and compassionately he was cared for.

“They were wonderful. In the diary they tell me how they held my hand, talked to me, sang to me, kept me awake when they were worried that my blood pressure was dipping dangerously low, shaving me, turning me over,” he said.

The 76 year-old was told he had a 50/50 chance of survival before he was put into an induced coma for more than a month. Since his near-death experience, he has said he feels dutybound to speak out about his gratitude to those who saved his life.

Now, in tribute to NHS nurses and other healthcare workers, Rosen has written a new poem called This Is You, You’re Looking at You. With reports that 40,000 nurses have left the NHS in the past year due to stress, he has also helped launch a new app, ShinyMind, aimed at supporting the mental health and overall wellbeing of nurses.

“When I was in hospital I could see the kind of strain the nurses were under but it was only really when I came out that I understood this,” he told the Guardian. “In my intensive care ward, where the death rate was 42%, nurses that usually work one nurse per patient were working three or four patients. They had to repeatedly dress up in full PPE gear, nurses were getting ill, some of them died.”

All this, Rosen said, was hugely stressful. “In fact, when I met some of the nurses afterwards, one or two said that they had found it extremely hard to carry on, if not impossible. I think about myself at their age, and whether I would have been able to take that kind of mental and physical strain, day in day, out. No, I wouldn’t.”

The poem suggests nurses “take a moment” to themselves. “Are there questions they can ask of themselves or even make suggestions about how to treat themselves nicely? No one can make sacrifices all the time. You just end up trying to run on empty. So I wanted to help. A way of giving back something to them.”

It was important that nurses “check their state of mind, check their state of health, use their breaks and free time to leave the workplace”, Rosen said.

It comes amid warnings that the NHS is on its knees following years of underfunding due to austerity. Hospitals and clinics are short-staffed, waiting lists are at record numbers and ambulance crews could not respond to almost one in four 999 calls last month.

Nurses across the UK will go on strike for the first time over two days in the fortnight before Christmas after ministers rejected their pleas for formal talks over NHS pay.

Rosen called the NHS a “brilliant and wonderful invention”, adding that a national health service was how a people or a nation looked after and cared for itself.

“The NHS involves the cooperation of thousands of people every second, every minute, every hour of every day,” he said. “Every day there are millions of interventions that help people. This is a collective effort of mind and body that is a testament to what human beings can do for each other.

“We should have treasured this institution, supporting it, improving it, ensuring that it is there solely for the purpose of helping people.”

He said he supported nurses’ intention to strike because he “trusts” their decision. “For nurses to have never taken this level of action before tells us how provoked they must be. I don’t see it as my job to arbitrate on what they’re worth. A group of devoted workers under enormous stress have taken a democratic decision,” he said.

Rosen came out of his coma after 40 days and spent three weeks in rehabilitation. The author of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt published a book last year, Many Kinds of Love, in which he wrote about his stay in hospital and return home.

A children’s book, Sticky McStickstick: The Friend Who Helped Me Walk Again, also detailed his transformation from a man who could not stand up by himself to a grandfather who proudly walks home, into the open arms of his beloved family.

He has said he found his rehabilitation experience “utterly infantilising” – so it made sense to write a children’s book about it. On one occasion, he was told to throw a balloon; on another he was relearning how to get up from a bench and was told to put his hands behind himself and his nose over his toes.

“The nurses were there to assist the physiotherapists and occupational therapists to teach me how to stand up, to walk with a frame or a stick, and then to walk unaided,” he said. “They were unbelievably good-humoured about it, kind and helpful.”

This Is You, You’re Looking at You by Michael Rosen

This is you.
You’re looking at you.

Look closely.
Closer.

Listen to the breathing.
Is it calm?
Or is there a bit of a gasp
or a snatch in there?

What about the walk?
Watch the walk.
In control, is it?
The feet roll from heel to toe
do they?

What next?
How about the eyes?
Look closely at the eyes.
Eyes tell you a lot.
The skin round the eyes.
Is it tight?
More on one side than the other?
And is that a frown?
Is it always there
or can it smooth out?

This is you.
You’re looking at you.

Now what comes next is harder.
See if you can notice any part of you
that’s tight, taut,
a part you that you’re holding
tighter and tauter
than it should be
and you don’t know why:
a shoulder maybe
one side of your neck?
Is there any way that can be looser?

This is you
You’re looking at you.

Now this is difficult.
We’re going in.
What about sleep?
Honestly.
Do you sleep through the night?
Or do you lie awake in the middle of the night
and you don’t know why?
What do you think about?
Does the day before
come in and sit there keeping you awake?
Does tomorrow
come in and sit there keeping you awake?
Have you ever talked to someone
about what keeps you awake?
You could, you know.
Sometimes, talking about it
scares off the things that keep you awake.

This is you
You’re looking at you.

Are there things you could do
which would look after you?
Places you could go
People you could see
Shows you could watch
Things you could do.
What are they?
Shut your eyes.
Imagine you’re doing them.
Imagine you’re doing them.
Imagine you’re doing them.

Have you ever tried ways
of expressing what you feel?
Drawing?
Writing?
Movement?
What would you draw?
What would you write?
How would you move?
Imagine you’re doing them.
Imagine you’re doing them.
Imagine you’re doing them.

And you know why I’m asking you
to ask yourself all these questions
don’t you?
It’s for that old, old reason:
if you don’t look after you
you can’t look after others.

This is you.
You’re looking at you.

Contributor

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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