Martin Figura creates poetic record of life during pandemic at Salisbury hospital

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One poem imagines an NHS nightshift worker at the height of the coronavirus crisis as an astronaut, adrift and untethered from a spacecraft. Another touches on the difficulty of trying to console a patient when the comfort of a smile is obscured by a mask.

The feelings of horror, sadness, isolation and frustration that NHS staff and volunteers endured at the height of the pandemic have been crystallised in verse as part of a spoken word collection at Salisbury district hospital.

The poet Martin Figura was commissioned by the Wiltshire hospital to help staff deeply affected by the pandemic work through their ordeals and create an artistic record of their experiences.

Dr Kate Jenkins, a clinical psychologist for the intensive care unit, said it was important to offer different ways for people to recover. “Reflection on traumatic events helps people move forward, but people want to reflect in different ways,” she said.

As well as working at the hospital, Jenkins was one of the first patients admitted to it with Covid. “It was shocking not to be able to see people’s faces because of masks, being isolated from friends and family. To be that vulnerable and alone.”

After she spoke to Figura about her experiences, he produced the poem Isolation and Human Kindness. It ends on what seems like a touching note of gratitude to the colleague and institution that saved her: “this family, these friends, this work”.

Jenkins said the legacy element of the project, which was backed by the hospital’s League of Friends and the charity Stars Appeal, was also important. Future generations would be able to look at the death figures, but may also be able to feel the emotion of the times through projects like this, she said.

Figura said the idea was not to portray them as heroes but to reflect honestly and vividly what they had been through. He held workshops and talked to staff in their workplaces. He also donned PPE so he could feel something of what it must have been like. “There was a huge mix of emotions – pride, helplessness, exhaustion,” he said. “I was very struck by how exhausted they were, especially during the second wave.”

Figura, who will read the poems during a series of shows in Salisbury in September, was particularly struck by the experience of Carrie Jones, an operational matron for medicine, who told how she had struggled when she was not at the hospital or at home to see people going about life as normal.

She said: “I found the outside world hard – that feeling of things carrying on as normal, laughing and giggling while we were having this very traumatic experience. It was two different worlds.”

Figura produced a poem called Space based on what Jones told him: “The news cannot be faced … Tesco’s empty shelves cannot be faced … the chattering school drop cannot be faced.”

“I think he has captured my feelings profoundly,” Jones said. “Reading the poem now does bring back a lot of the thoughts and feelings I had at the time.”

The number of Covid patients at the hospital has crept up again in the past week, with 11 Covid patients in the hospital and four on the intensive care unit. It reported its 218th death. “I hope we don’t have to go through it all again,” said Jones. “But if we do, I think we will be more equipped to deal with it.”

Isolation and Human Kindness

The limits of heal thy self
a cough with each deep breath
The Mexican wave of eyebrows
a slow revelation of one of us
Five nights ghosted in side-room isolation
the time it takes to ask for a gloved hand
The comfort of appetite, of recovery
a little mash with gravy
The boundless gratitude for kindness, luck:
this family, these friends, this work

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