As an artist and narrative-researcher committed to fostering creativity in education, it has been both a privilege and delight to delve into the extensive archive of Bristol medical students' creative work. The students' courage to grapple with fundamental questions and express their vulnerability, humanity and individuality through the arts never ceased to amaze me.
James Carse wrote -
'Once I hear a story I enter it's dimensionality, I inhabit it's space at it's time. I do not understand the story in terms of my experience but my experience in terms of the story.'
Many student narratives, visual art works, music and dance presentations, have indeed informed and enriched my understanding and perspective.
My selection for the Curator's Tour represents issues which emerged strongly from the archive. I hope these pieces may extend reflection, generate debate and inspire others to become actively involved in the riches of the creative process.
Sarah Wake - 'Sister and Brother'
A highly-charged experience of family loss and the impending fragmentation of home-life was transformed by the discovery of an intimate photographic image. Sarah's insight and creative imagination inspired a painting which encapsulates shared emotion, tensile family bonds and highlights the capacity of the arts to develop and share rich and positive metaphors.
Richard Jones - 'Distance'
Richard's reflection reinforces the value of securing time and space in which to process complex thoughts and emotions. Despite initial resistance to creative engagement, he embraced the opportunity to explore the wealth of shared sibling history through poetry. Richard's hope that this treasured relationship will endure is expressed with honesty and simplicity.
'An excerpt from the diary of a patient'
Who Am I?
The author's courageous memoir highlights the differing languages at play between medics and lay-people through the lens of both 'insider' and 'outsider'. The power of medical terminology un-framed and diluted by the sensitive practitioner is exposed.
Kate Birchenall 'Daffodil'
Kate's representation of the experience of depression provides a universal visual symbol expressing insight into the cyclical nature of health and well-being. Creative imagination harnessed in this manner nurtures the capacity to sustain such dualities as strength and fragility.
'Living with Alcoholism'
This auto-biographical account raises the issue of the child's legacy of disempowerment and emotional pain. The author refers to the 'therapeutic experience' of writing this piece and reveals that in the creative process, her perspective extended to embrace addiction within families in a wider context.
Pryanjalee Perera - 'The Sad Sonata'
Pryanjalee's empathetic response to a patient suffering from depression has been converted into an exquisite resonance. This piano-composition highlights the gift of insight and compassion in medicine yet also the emotional toll upon the medic.
Does It Have To Be This Way?
Katriona Thompson - 'Mark'
The power-dynamics, assumptions and prejudices within medical consultations are raised by Katriona's trio of characters. The multiple-perspectives (physical and mental) woven through this narrative give voice to a rich sense of humanity. Katriona's text implies that a single word or gesture may impact powerfully upon the fragile balance between the patient's positive and negative experience within a consultation.
Barry Main - 'Dear Diary'
Barry's imaginative presentation of the diverse individual life-stories within a waiting-room honours the importance of perceiving each patient holistically, beyond the focus of 'the condition'. These narratives also highlight the often silent, dramas and dynamics within medical institutions.
Irorho Ejournah - 'Spots of Patients'
Irorho's simple, visual representation of 'same yet different' demonstrates the power of visual language to communicate knowledge and understanding in a fresh ways and also delight the eye.
Amy Nichol - 'Pants'
In a sharply observed and playful manner Amy underlines the fact that clinicians are humans too! Thrust into unusually intimate situations with strangers, this poem implies that preserving a sense of humour alongside the expected clinical distance may serve both patients and doctors well.
Under the Skin
Susannah McMahon - 'A Dance Trapped In Diseased Body'
I had the privilege to witness Susannah's dance as a 'live' performance and was overwhelmed by the sensitivity, range and power of her creative interpretation. Awareness of individual body-intelligence and expression during consultation is a resource which may complement verbal dialogue.
Thomas Scharzgruber - 'Snowman'
The physical expression of kindness and a desire to bring joy to a frail patient - in the form of a doctor/snowman! This imaginative response highlights a spontaneous and endearing capacity to step outside the standard clinical role in the interest of a patient's well-being.
Sanjeevan Sriskandaraja - 'The Meeting That Made a Difference'
Raising questions about values and assumptions, this account suggests an expanded perspective during a home visit. Sanjeevan's sensory use of language pulls us powerfully into the physicality of this encounter.
Giles Coverdale - 'David'
Acceptance of negative emotions in relation to patients is brought to the fore forcibly. Giles explores this complex dynamic with great honesty using his creative engagement to search for ways of holding these conflicting thoughts and feelings. Other student narratives have explored shifts in emotion following illness within the family context.
Sarah Bingham - 'Life...Injecting it or sucking it away?'
Sarah's transformation of a specific, clinical encounter into an open-ended enquiry around the complex factors around addiction underlines the rich capacity of creative engagement. The stark immediacy of the collage, enhanced by the viewer's position, strength of colours and textures support Sarah's central question effectively.
Anona McAvoy -'Life in the Glasshouse'
Anona's powerful multi-sensory poem articulates the profound helplessness of being monitored and/or supported by a technology with which we cannot engage or understand.The sensations, thoughts and anxieties of this patient-voice perhaps raises the issue of taking time to empower non-medics to engage in their health more actively by opening the medical language to support increased knowledge and understanding of medication, procedures and technology.
Heads and Hearts
Dermot Mallon - 'Head Pain'
The sophisticated interplay between the pale, elegant rendering of a woman's head with a red wound pouring blood illuminates Dermot's insightful exploration of the visibility of emotional pain.The notion that a physical wound may be dealt with instantly and effectively yet emotional pain may only be brought into evidence in particular circumstances and conditions is indeed a challenge to be addressed.
Lucy-Jayne Hodges - 'I'm at hand if needed?'
Lucy-Jayne acknowledges the wealth of communication conveyed by touch and reinforces the value of following our profound human instinct to respond to each other in this way.This notion is echoed in a text by another student who courageously expresses his regret that he had not put down his medical chart and held the hand of dying patient. Other students have noted with surprise how much comfort patients have drawn from a spontaneous hand-shake or arm around the shoulders.
Out Of Our Heads
Richard Oguguo - Use your EQ not just your IQ
Mentally flipping from a male, medical student's perspective to that of a young mother in emotional crisis, then converting this heady mix into a rap (which I was fortunate to hear performed) highlights the versatility, empathy and creative potential tapped within the Bristol medical humanities programmes. Richard's focus on the need to draw upon heads and hearts when confronting uncomfortable issues and his engaging imaginative interpretation inspired us all.
Margaret Williams - 'Sun Spun'
Margaret's words convey striking sensitivity and appreciation of others' worlds.The capacity to 'be alongside' without judgment, respecting the child's time, space and emotional readiness was richly rewarded in this instance. The quality of attention and acute observation evident in Sun Spun are also key factors to consider in medical training.
Margaret's poem brings to mind a quote by neurologist V. Ramachandran;- 'Diagnosing a patient's problem remains as much an art as a science, calling into play powers of observation, reason and all the human senses'.
My Ethical Journey
As a non-medic, embracing the complexities of ethics surrounding clinical narratives and personal reflections was initially daunting. As the curator, keeping respect for both the artists and subjects at the core of the editing process was crucial.
In cases where confidentiality and patient-identification arose, the process became many-layered. Even with patient consent a given, medical staff, family, friends, and other key individuals needed to be taken into account. The editing process entailed close negotiation with the student artists/authors, current ethical medical advice from colleagues and much fictionalization of age, gender, medical details, social context, location etc...down to altering the breed, name and colour of a pet!
I elected to take this rocky, diverting path as opposed to brutal editing in order to preserve undiluted the powerful narratives students have shared. The students themselves are given the option to make modifications or opt out at any point, taking on ethical considerations with regard to the presentation of their work for the website has been an insightful exercise for many.
We have also sought advice and feedback from external focus groups and an experienced academic 'reader' outside the immediate medical staff to maintain appropriate ethical standards.