22 June 2024

Poet documents pandemic experiences at Salisbury District Hospital

Poet Martin Figura has captured staff’s experiences of shock, fear, and isolation at Salisbury District Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hospital commissioned Martin Figura to help staff who were affected by the impacts of the pandemic, talking through their experiences and creating an artistic record of this time in history.

Now, he has created a collection of over 20 poems, which will be read at a series of shows across Salisbury this month.

“The idea was to try and capture, both for our staff’s own benefit and for history, what managing the Covid pandemic felt like. It is the emotions behind dealing with what we had for the last year rather than just the numbers,” explained Dave Roberts the Head of Communications at the Wiltshire hospital.

“It is trying to find a means to capture that both for posterity but also as part of the reflective process that you have to go through when you have been through such an enormous trauma like a hospital community has been over the past 18 months. It felt like the right thing to do and we were so pleased when it was backed by the hospital’s League of Friends and the charity Stars Appeal,” added Dave.

To inspire his poetry, Martin heard the experiences of different staff members from a range of levels and roles. He gathered 20-30 hours of interviews and donned PPE so he could feel what that experience must have been like.

“I found it quite difficult to hold it together during the interviews. I am so grateful to the staff because it is a vampiric thing, I am asking people to tell me their experience and very often that is quite a distressing experience,” said Martin.

Fit testing – Martin being fitted for his PPE – credit Alice Smith

Martin was particularly struck by the story of a father and son, where a member of staff helped to facilitate their final goodbyes through the phone.

“There is a father and son in one of the poems where the staff member on the end of life team is holding up the phone to the father who knows he is going to die. He is saying goodbye to his son, and he is telling him when to plant out the begonias and not to do it too early, and his son just says “I am going to miss you Dad.”

“It is just the simplest thing and he tells him “you can do this”, and I think it is the simplicity – often we look for big emotional cinematic moments and it’s just those little tiny everyday things. There’s nothing grand and poetic about it, “you can do this” there are no fancy words, just simple”.

Martin leading a poetry workshop – credit Harley Shearstone

The spoken word project comes as Salisbury District Hospital aims to become the most creative hospital in the country. Dave Roberts told Love Salisbury that he sees an opportunity within the 4,500 people that work at Salisbury District Hospital to express the work they do in different ways.

“Sometimes that’s scientific papers, sometimes that’s lectures, but all of those things can also embrace the concept of creativity to make them more accessible, to stretch the thinking that people are undertaking, and to add a bit of light into the space.

“We are bringing cartooning and caricaturing into the hospital. We have a heavy use of photography and video making, and we have now incorporated spoken word as a way of articulating our thoughts and feelings.

“Creativity is not just about poems and pictures, it’s a way of being and a way of existing and hopefully Salisbury District Hospital can embrace that and move that forward,” added Dave.

From interviewing Hannah McClean, End of Life Team

When it began, my baby was four months old
and I felt extreme guilt at not being there.
The mental conflict is absolute, should I
be leaving my baby and coming back
a few months into maternity leave.

Anxiety tilting the cradle back
and forth, back and forth. Vocation:
a lodestone behind your ribs.

Retired people have said a similar thing
You need an End of Life Team. The team
is about to be hit by a storm. I came back
in October a month before the second wave.
I was terrified to drink in the hospital at first.

The kettle whistling on the hob,
the congratulations flowers brittle,
their circle of petals swept away.

We covered seven days a week
with a palliative team and felt
really useful, like we were making
a difference. There was much more
of a sense, we are ready for this.

Oh God, how do they, how
do other people, you know,
how do they, how do they.

I think people felt the second wave
wouldn’t get this high, nowhere near
as high, four times as high. It was going to be
a slower rise, then like a table top, perhaps
a bit longer before it subsided. They didn’t realise.
The burden of a ship’s cargo lashed
in the hold against the weather’s
capricious mood swings.

It was a Saturday, the sixteenth, we had
seven deaths. I walked onto the ward just
as a patient died and I offered to break the news
to the family. Then I moved to the next patient
I was due to see and they’d already died.

The deep-sea-diver descends a rung
at a time through the tumultuous surface,
doesn’t let go until utterly submerged.

And I thought, well tomorrow is it going to be
twelve, is it going to be twenty the next day?
We deal with acute grief after acute grief, you finish
one phone call and then you’re straight into
the next acute grief situation: the same.

Salvation emerges like a photograph
in a darkroom: slowly, drenched in red,
awaiting the verdict of light.

I held the phone for him as he was saying
when to plant the begonias out and ​
don’t do it too early, and his son said
I’m going to miss you dad
and he said you can do this.

Martin Figura Aug 21

Martin leading a poetry workshop – credit Harley Shearstone
Martin in PPE and Matron Carrie Jones – credit Alice Smith

Written by
Beth Doherty
View all articles
Written by Beth Doherty