Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Hippocrates Initiative

It's always good to discover something completely new. I was intrigued to stumble across a website for the Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine the other day while on an early morning bus in Lancaster (on-bus wifi is a wonderful thing!). The Initiative is all about encouraging people involved in the medicinal and health care professions to write poetry. A prize is awarded annually under three categories  -  to someone who works in the NHS (or has worked there), to a young person aged between 14 and18, and to anyone who enters, globally. In previous years there have been some wonderful poems about the limits to which explorers and athletes push their bodies as well as poems about aspects of caring and what the performance of medical work does to the person practicing medicine.

The reason I was so thrilled to find this site is that ever since my early days as a nurse on some very high dependency units, I have found that an excellent way to come to terms with some of the things you see and experience is to write poetry about them. Of course, this doesn't usually see the light of day in the form of publication, but it has often been a way to integrate emotions and to reflect on difficult, sad or challenging situations. The medics I've worked with have often had their own particular creative outlets for the high degree of pressure they face. I've had colleagues who are excellent artists and musicians - one could even be heard practising in the hospital chapel in the mornings before operating. There's something extremely relaxing and restorative about engaging in right brain activity when so much of your professional life involves detailed left brain activity.

One of the great powers of poetry is that it allows you to inhabit a story - to tell it and to reshape in over and over again. (Kirkegaard did this in Fear and Trembling with the profoundly difficult story of the sacrifice of Isaac.) As you retell the story, the narrative enables you to see different aspects of it and this can be a therapeutic exercise, helpful in allowing you to create meaning and revisit or discover the different emotions that a situation gives rise to.

There's always a debate about how far medicine in a high tech setting is a science or an art. Most of us would acknowledge that the best doctors blend the two approaches to what they do, utilising the skills of an artist in finding creative ways to communicate and motivate their patients and also in keeping their own reactions to the inevitable pressures and drama of medicine healthy.

I've been inspired to revisit some of the poems I wrote years ago while nursing and to re-live situations that even now I find it hard to forget. Many of the poems remind me of people and events that have had a lasting impact on my own sense of self - this is the gift of patients to those who care for them. It's been heart-warming to re-live some of those moments from over 30 years ago and to be surprised by the joy and insight and sometimes the sadness they bring. This body of poetry now has a very special place in my life and plays its part in shaping thought and prayer about what I do in the present.

It's a bit late to enter for this year's competition as the closing date in 31st January. However, I now have something to aim for for January 2016! The site can be found at Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine  It's well worth listening to some of the entries from recent years and I found the stories about the people involved inspiring. This is a unique site, hosting information about what has become one of the most influential poetry prizes in the spectrum, linking as it does medicine and poetry, science and art, technical knowledge and imaginative insight.

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