Both a UEA alumnus of the Creative Writing MA and a current professor of medical and health humanities, Professor Christie Watson discusses her return to nursing during the pandemic, the importance of true voices within medical professions to be heard, finding meaning in suffering, and her latest book The Courage to Care: A Call For Compassion.
After training at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Professor Watson endured a 20-year career as a paediatric nurse. Equipped with a “desire to live many lives” and a Malcolm Bradbury bursary, she shifted her career to writing, where she has combined her humanitarian clinical experience with a humanizing literary style.
The field of medical and health humanities may sound like an obscure discipline, but her book stresses the importance of it. Defined by Watson as “narrative medicine,” it seeks to study the nature of human suffering and to find existential meaning in health and illness that goes beyond scientific studies. This is not to say that it lacks practical use; as Watson points out, research into this field is a medicine and has been found to alleviate compression, distress, and build resilience and teamwork between workplaces.
In the media and in our own circles, we prescribe nurses’ voices for them. We imagine what their daily working lives entail, we guess their responses to political decisions, but when do we take the time to actually listen to them? Watson stresses the need for these voices to be heard, as “their voices are perhaps not as loud but equally important and valid.” She gives us an insight into a neglected voice, one that has been ignored since Florence Nightingale but has been made increasingly relevant by our societal dependence on the unwavering care they provide.
There have been times when we have applauded them, namely during the national clap for the NHS. As Watson points out, this quickly subsided once the nation realized how at-risk these heroes were, and how undeserving they were of the treatment they received. “Fair pay for the work they do, adequate safety equipment, and recognition that they are safety-critical professionals who deserve to be treated as such.” This stark exposure is revealed in the voices of nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare workers, which are absorbed and amplified within Waston’s narrative.
Through this exposé, our values have changed. “Community and kindness” are where we see virtue, where before we may have found it in celebrity culture and materialism. The integrity in those who commit themselves to selfless sacrifice are the glow-ups we have learned to value, and “we’re looking for strength in the haunted eyes of healthcare workers and not in the influencers who are doing workouts in Dubai.” The beauty of humanity lies in our vulnerability, our weakness, our ability to suffer, and the real heroes in this pandemic are the ones reflecting our humanity back at us, in all its beautiful fragility, unsilenced by writers like Watson who strive to document their courageous, compassionate experience.