Small changes

Time slows when the lights are fluorescent and the days are punctuated by the rounds of the medical staff.

My head of studies for my PhD is a woman who is internationally known for her creative-design- person-centred approaches to dementia care. She’s an Occupational Therapist, with a background in art psychotherapy, and a PhD in using Art & Design methods in enhancing care in care-homes.

So I was super stoked when she asked me to be part of 1 of her many projects (some paid work on top of PhD). She invited me to be part of a project where we will design a Dementia friendly eye clinic. In real life.

Yesterday we had a meeting with some service users (I hate this term); a carer and his wife who has dementia. We spoke about all of their experiences of the eye clinic, from everything from leaving home and parking all the way through to leaving at the end.

There were many flaws in their care, some avoidable, some just a mistake, some just part of the design flaw within the pathway.

What I discovered when we looked back at our notes was that the things we could make better for people with dementia – would actually make these things better for EVERYONE who uses the service. How crazy is that?

I remember a few years ago, I had some crazy neurological stuff going on and it really effected my eye sight – I’d get like flashes of white light in my vision and I lost some of my peripheral vision. I had to see the eye doctor a bunch of times.

It was crazy just how unusual and difficult it was to go through that pathway. Eye drops that sort of itched, and we’d all sit staring at a wall, packed in like a crowded bus down a dim dirty coloured cream corridor. You couldn’t see anything clearly, but there was loads of small text leaflets teasing you to try and read them on the walls.  Your eyes hurt from the light. When it was time for anyone to call you, you’d get up and not be able to see who and where they were calling you from. Then the actual examination of the eye is uncomfortable – you have to lean onto some medical equipment – and being small, my feet didn’t touch the floor, there’s no arms on the chair & you’r completely unsteady – and my neck hurt from stretching it out across a small table to sit my chin in the face of the eye doctor.

It felt undignified, and intimate and vulnerable and stupid all at the same time.

Once they made me sign to consent to something I couldn’t even read because of the eye drops.

And then when it’s all over, you leave – by feeling the walls around you – and trying to remember which way was out. When you finally make it back outside – the light is bright. But in an unfamiliar way – and navigating the world through blurred vision enhances a crazy headache of sorts.

That was my experience as a young-un. Someone who has pretty decent eye sight (or did).

Now imagine that experience for someone who struggles to convey pain, or issues. Who is confused? Who has learning difficulties, short-term memory loss. Who can’t read?! 

I can’t imagine how disorientating and how scary and uneasy it must be.

I’ve been missing my clinical aspect of being a radiotherapist recently.

I think it’s the team work and the patients I miss the most. So I’m really looking forward to being part of a team, working with patients and their families, in a clinical setting again – but this time my main aim will be to come up with & test & prototype cool, person-centered creative & critical solutions — whilst at the same time learning some cool new researcher skills. Mostly how to get something you make, and apply it and embed it into the system. This is a skill I am really missing.

From just 1 meeting, I’ve already paralleled some similarities  of things that could change within radiotherapy and the dementia care pathway — there’s just such a long way to go. But, I’m excited!

We already have 4 areas of focus, and ideas to prototype. It’s too early to share or know if they’re any good or useful. But I can’t wait to share with you guys our future work on this!

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(In)Visibility and Art [& suffering]

Today, after 9-10 days of a horrific infection, I found myself feeling human enough to do some actual work. We’re organizing a conference about art and visibility, my PhD friends and I. More info coming soon! So I started writing the stuff we need to move forward today.

But what it made me think about was visibility within healthcare, and illness, and art.

I started thinking about Greenberg ( visibility of the aesthetics of experience), – and then about  the Cubists and other Post-Impressionists perspectives being  particularly poignant for illness and suffering.

But contemporarily, how  are we and can we understand someone else’s pain or convey our own to others? How do we make sense of the nonsensical, whether the chaos of life-as-lived or the inscrutability of dying? How do we answer the questions “Why me?” and “Why now?” when we are diagnosed with disease? How do we paint what we know is there but cannot see?  These are heavy questions which lie sullen at the bottom of every action within my PhD enquiry. Modern medicine, like much pre-Impressionistic art, tried to square this circle by instituting a technical and professional gaze that filters out the ephemera of the individual in order to identify and name what is hidden by opaque bodies (see, of course, Foucault 1994).

But this is not arts aim; it’s not a reductive attempt to discover the building blocks common to all landscapes or buildings or humans or musical instruments. It’s to uncover the essence of a thing, that particular thing, in order to reveal more.

Our representations of disease may actually conceal even as they seek to reveal. We know that socioeconomics and other social determinants (e.g., discrimination, exposure to violence, lack of education and social support, etc.) are tied to health and risk of illness and disease. We also know that socioeconomics and other social determinants affect prognosis and recovery. (Read Michael M’s The Health Gap for more of this)

Although the media love to highlight the enemy on our borders threatening to disrupt our safe worlds insulated from many of the realities of danger and suffering, it is actually our capacity for self-destruction that constitutes our greatest foe: poverty, poor nutrition, lack of access to care, neglect of mental illness, climate change, and war, both declared and undeclared. But far easier to wind up a distant epidemic and see a remote danger to ourselves (while thousands die in a distant place) than address our real threats. Despite many genuine humanitarian responses from wealthier “first-world” countries, it is still clear that we have primitive protective responses (at home and abroad) that largely ignore the real wolves at the door.

As the NHS looms on a crisis that was caused my a greedy, beaurocratic , irresponsible government, and Brexit heightens tensions, and Donald Trump’s inauguration starts to truly loom ahead, I got thinking.

Thinking about  all of this, I wonder if art is our tool to help both recognize suffering but also help build bridges with communities we have trouble connecting with due to these issues.  If the digital world fosters isolation, what evokes empathy? Which of our personas do we believe in—our social media portraits or our reflections in the mirror? What are the consequences of a digitally-created society in the psyche of the global community? Art *can* cross boundaries, social class, geolocked nations. It exists in between physical, real and the social-digital world.  It links us through history, makes the other seem friendly, it can hold up a mirror when everything else seems shattered and untrue. Art explores the complicated yet timeless questions of influence, superficiality, and powerlessness.

When I was first an art-student, I remember finding and learning all about this activist art history. From Ad Reinhardt creating “communist” comics under a false name and being investigated by the FBI, to more direct examples such as the Gorilla Girls, and PAD-D groups. They made work with a political edge.  It was so exciting! I wondered about how awesome it would have been, to be growing up in such a polarized and politically difficult time and then being involved in such grassroots political activity and art being the tool, or the process.  Almost a license to get it out there and be archived for the future. But that same political drive, was also given to the artworld too – Gregory Scholette of PAD-D continues writing about art and political activism with his artwork representing his ideals and holding the artworld accountable for its Dark Matter, Reinhardt wrote lots of essays – as published in “Art as Art” with his disgust of the commercialization of art.

Of course, now I found myself, in a much different world than 8 years ago where hope resided, and people were less obvious and less aggressive with their hate. Where politically, things all felt relatively stable and fine. I have since lost my political art naivety that I had then, and I don’t feel the same excitement as I did when I first found it —- but what does remain is my gut feeling that art CAN make a difference, and my passion in the use of criticality esp within a political art canon. Art can be urgent and important and poignant.

I wonder about all of these experiences, and lessons. And I think – yeah, it’s our turn to make the invisible – visible. We are traumatized witnesses, some of us accomplices, groping about in the gap between passive outrage and mobilized action. We are both: perpetrators and victims, objects and subjects endlessly exchanging roles.

It’s our turn to show that mirror to those who can’t see a reflection. It’s our turn to help people practice empathy, to feel less powerless, to make people accountable, to stand up for what is right – and I think it’s about time the artworld got out of it’s comfort zone.

I’m not sure what that looks like for me.  Some artists are already doing it. But our Art is about changing the world, rather than study how it is. It’s not just about making things, but making things happen. There is much proof out there that our common community has not been relinquished.

Is art sufficient to the task of unpacking these contradictions that lie within our society – or should it complicate matters further? Such questions are unanswerable, but we shall see and we shall do.

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A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Every so often when campers know I’ve been pretty poorly over the past few years, they ask me how everything is. I reply with that it’s the most “normal” I’ve felt in 3-4 years.
But it got me thinking: on Returning to Normalcy … What Does that Even Mean?
The last time i worked at Sandy Island, properly, My life was in a state of mental whiplash and I barely even realized it. In barely a few years I’ve gone from being in a death spiral to staying up super late drinking wine with friends, climbing icelandic waterfalls, running for late buses. I went from planning out my funeral to doing radiation oncology and beginning to start a PhD. I’ve gone from thinking I’d never step foot at Sandy Island again, to working my longest summer contract here.
But it’s taken me to get to this summer to look back to see just how far I have come, compared to even just last year. Even in January this year. Even April.
Before going further I have to share how profoundly grateful I am to everyone. I can’t even write these words without gushing tears.
So the thought of a return to normalcy is like a warm embrace: to feel like the last few years were a mere aberration that has been rectified. I can’t explain the joy I got when my brain could feel bored and my body wanted to live again. I have about 4–6 hours a day that feel like they did before. The thought of getting to blend my social passions with community and art and social change immediately sets me to problem solving and creating again. Or the thought of unlocking a new meaningful lifestyle that I can plan for has me losing sleep piecing it together while I should be sleeping. I tweeted the other day that I’m already overwhelmed by the projects I’d like to work on now. It made me so happy to tweet it, to feel like I could be back to normal.
But how can I expect life to be normal? I’m still on a small doses of medications to help with everything from pain, to swelling, to hormone balances, to immune function stuff. As much as a return to normalcy seems the obvious goal, I’m definitely not normal now – so much pain & fatigue, still, and it just hit me I have no idea what was so great about normalcy before.
Being in the USA, seeing friends, being at Sandy Island with friends (staff and campers) has been incredible because these friends are all hard chargers, both professionally and personally. They’re exciting to be around because they are making the most of all parts of their lives and doing so thoughtfully. One of them asked what the projects were I was referencing in my above tweet, and in full imposter syndrome mode I stumbled at trying to explain what I was going to professionally do.
I constantly share that my biggest life insight is that while you have the time, optimize on the meaning you find in life.

In some rush towards normalcy and wanting to make the most of said normalcy, I find myself leaping to my old life – a life where I didn’t see my family, I made excuses not to see friends so I could just work or do less meaningful things. I told myself that I was going to do loads of things at Sandy this year, and I didn’t – as much as I wanted to. I should have spent more nights with Julz and Katy. I should have visited Anya more. I should have drank with Chris more. So many shoulda-woulda-coulda’s. Instead, I spent a lot of time trying to catch up with online stuff (such slow, at times non-existent, wifi). I spent quite a bit of time in bed – fatigue. I spent time that I have no idea where I spent the time?!
So there, Sandy Island: I‘ve been racing to get back to normalcy, racing to shed my death shroud, and I’m on the verge of disrespecting what I’ve been living through just to feel “normal.”
What is so great about normal?. Many of the years of trying to work as a freelance artist were financially crippling. The past years working freelance and undertaking clinical placement whilst feeling ill were exhausting.
Am I sick or am I better? Is a return to normalcy my goal or my loss? How can I maintain this profound sense of gratefulness for life, if I queue up in the same old lines?
Is my death shroud an exoskeleton I can to pull myself out of, instead of dragging it along?
This summer has given me the time to reflect upon this, and think out what’s next, and Sandy Island people are helping me figure this new chapter out, and reminding me just how lucky I am. I’ve never felt so loved in my life; and I am so grateful to be.
Special friends have showed me just how normal love looks. It’s not always a mad-dash to the airport, it can just be a heartfelt hug for you feeling better. It can be an incredible gift like a personalised book full of love and wisdom to help guide you when you’re not super sure what’s next. It could be a cool turtle dove as a reference to your most favourite movie ever (friends for ever — home alone 2!).
The gratitude i feel for all of this is completely over-whelming.
A pilgrim is said to carry all their back-path with them as they move forward. It is the back-path that brought us to where we are now. Without it, we cannot enter the path that lays in front of us.

So i’ve been asking myself: Can I make a future of the unknown and still be myself? Can I ever return to normal? And why do I want to?
Thanks for reading this far if you have.

Much love always, your friend – smizz x

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The things I’ve learned from a broken mirror

Saving a life doesn’t change the world, but for that person, the world changes forever.

I’m right at the bittersweet end of my 3 years of  BSc Hons radiation-oncology school training. Assuming I pass the last few things, in 3 weeks I’ll be technically allowed, once my HCPC registration and license and indemnity insurance comes through, to plan, care for and treat people who have cancer with radiotherapy. Which is really scary. I will be responsible and liable by law for the safety of my patients.

And yet, the 3 years has gone past in a whirl-wind. It has been both long (no thanks to working clinically all through the summers) and extremely fast. Energizing and completely ball-breakingly fatiguing. A mixture of: I’m not ready to be qualified yet to I just want to do the job, already! Slowly ticking off endless assignment after endless assignment. Slowly being able to reflect upon how far we have come.

And now I write this post. With a cool raspberry lemonade in one hand, I stare out of the window with the sun in my eyes and feel kind of relaxed for the first time in a long time.

Doing this course was a massive risk for me.

I had nothing and everything to loose.

Here’s what I’ve learnt:

A few years ago (y’all know the story), my original life had become broken by ill-health and everything changed.  No one should ever underestimate the lack of quality of life living with horrible, endless, chronic pain and fatigue offers.  And as a result, my old life just didn’t fit in the same way anymore. So, after drawing people wanting to change the NHS to make it better using their health experiences, and this personal medical experience of mine – I decided to give up my planned life of being a full-time artist and retrain in healthcare (with the perspective of an artist). This was because I needed to get closure, to understand the human-body, to gain some control from this knowledge, and a routine – to try and ease the fatigue (that turned out to be a LOL – there’s no rest in healthcare): but most of all, my biggest motivator was  to try and make a difference and really care for others.

This was because the NHS was the first place I had been shown any real true kindness  from complete strangers when I was at my most weakest. I felt (& I feel it even more now than ever) this pit of gratitude at the bottom of my stomach when I think about the care I have been given & continue to receive – from everyone in the NHS, not just doctors & HCP but to the students, receptionists and porters, ect.

From my GP (the awesome Dr. Marco Pieri) who would say we’re friends. And in the beginning, I thought that saying we were friends was weird.  I was suspicious. It’s just his job? I knew nothing about him.  But as I grew older with him, and cried on him when I was at my lowest (i don’t ever cry in front of people), and moaned, and repeated the same endless complaints at him -much to his dismay – he built up this incredible knowledge about me as a person – not just what was wrong with me. He asks me about my work, my life in general and about my fears. He asks me what I want to do in regards to my care and he gives me lil’ prep talks (even unsolicited NHS job interview advise) by telling me to keep going and just to live life to the fullest (fo’ serious). He was one of the first people I told (by chance) that I got this awesome fully-funded PhD scholarship. He stopped me from jumping around from random GP to GP, because I didn’t understand the importance of continuity in care at the time. I feel like he intrinsically cares – not just for my wellbeing – but for the whole population of Doncaster after discussions with him on his passion for improving life expectancy & outcomes for the Donx to meet the rest of the population (thus his role as a clinical lead in the Doncaster CCG).

It turns out that he is in fact both Physician and detective, and through time, he also became both healer & friend. And through experiencing a lot of his kindness, his humor, his knowledge, his time & care – I felt like I needed to return it.  I wanted to be that person he was for me – for my patients; to make them feel cared for and valued. To not feel insignificant when you’re at your most vulnerable.

What I’ve learnt is that patients have been my best teachers, but some of my lessons have been painful.

I  have learnt from their  incredibly life affirming stories of hope, humor, achievement and tragedy and heartbreak. There was a woman whose volunteer hospital transport driver turned out to be her long-lost niece – found and reunited together through daily drives to & from radiotherapy treatment. I’ve treated gold-medal winners from the Olympics 50 years ago, pilots, magazine publishers. I’ve seen people go home and back with nothing but the clothes on their back- for 7 weeks, heard stories of amazing neighbours and learnt a lot about people’s pets. I’ve heard horrific stories that just needed to be told and heard – of death, loss, and abuse. Every day is a day where I take at least someone home in my head. Some fade away, eventually. Though 3 years on – there’s some patients who are etched onto my mind and I don’t know why some really stay with you.  I stopped checking up on them post-treatment because quite a few have died since- and it makes me feel incredibly sad. These people who we often just shared 2 or 3 weeks together at 10 mins + at a time become significant to me. And  I hope I never loose this into qualification.

 

It will be weird not being with #teamleeds, every day; My friends who we’ve gone through and seen a lot together. These stories bound us together. They’re like brothers and sisters now. I imagine this is kind of how joining the army feels, but instead it’s a healthcare course.  It will be weird not joining in on a random Facebook conversation, not having to panic about the endless deadlines and  unclear learning objectives. My closest friends (most of them younger than me) on the course have taught me a lot about growing up. I’ve managed to have a second ‘coming of age’ experience through being good friends in their journey. We’ve travelled when we could together, hosted parties and feasts of food. Shared and supported each other through tragedies, deadlines, successes and the crazy profound things life throws at you. I am completely in awe of these now 21 year olds who are mature before their years. And I think about how their strength is true testament to how I’ve managed to get here – 3 years on. At the beginning of the course, we said that we would drag each other through to the very bittersweet end. And here we are, 3 weeks to go, still dragging each other. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for them, egging us on.

Then there is the staff at the place where I’ve trained, they have been incredible. They’re passionate about education and patient care and safety. They love radiotherapy. They’ve shown me time, enthusiasm and exactly what being a compassionate healthcare professional should look like. I’ve learnt how to ask questions, without being too leading. I’ve learnt to hear for things not actually said, but implied, by patients so that I know if they need more extra support. I feel incredibly indebted to them for their knowledge and time (and patience!). I hope that we stay friends at the end because they’re such great fun people. And I can’t thank my tutors enough for all of their guidance and knowledge in helping me shape me as a healthcare professional!

What I’ve learnt in my Healthcare education (both officially and as a patient) is that everyone in the NHS has a reason to do what they do: It’s almost never about money or our quality of life. It’s because we can make a difference. All any of us ever want to do is to make other people’s lives better. Sometimes it’s life-changing, sometimes it’s something much simpler.

Sometimes things don’t work the way we should. The system isn’t perfect. Neither are the people in it. But it is fundamentally decent and good and whole. That’s why I am absolutely committed to the principles, to the ideals of the NHS. I think it’s just about the best thing this country has ever achieved. It is remarkably robust, but the pressures facing it are immense, and there are few easy solutions. But we – the people of the NHS – ALL STAFF- are absolutely committed to it.

What I’ll always remember from my education in radiotherapy – and that crazy 3 years of unpaid labour – will be the stories that made these people into NHS.

Being a radiotherapy student has given me a lot of perspective and new skills I never knew I could do.  I’Ve learnt that whenever you can’t think of something to say in a conversation, ask people questions instead. Even if you’re next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts, and you never know when it will be useful.

Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.

And life can be incredibly short. So see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes,  and never, ever start smoking.

Thank you to the whole of the NHS for your love, and kindness, and education. It turns out studying Radiotherapy turned out to be WAY more than just a degree at the end. 

I have learnt, through pain,  that I am more than my pain, more than what was built & burned, more than all I’ve lost. You will get to build again. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to share this adventure with the people who’ve helped you.   Remember it ain’t always about where you start, but it’s about where you’re going and end up.

To the last 3 weeks!

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0-5.jpg *Hope I pass!*

 

 

Break it down, build it up, make it better around the world.

I’m now officially in this incredible and super lucky position of sitting across multiple disciplines all at the same time; i straddle across being an artist, a designer, a healthcare professional, a researcher and a patient.  It’s super exciting but it’s also incredibly scary – even overwhelming.

I’m kind of unique in this respect.  There’s not that many of us hybrids rocking around in healthcare, or who are “out” about it,  but I think that’s going to change dramatically over the next few years.  Healthcare is building up towards a renewal, globally, to change from being just this service where you get things sort of fixed – and that’s it – discharged.  But it’s going to change into this service that is adapted to personal needs; both preventative and continuous care – in different models.  That the healthcare education model will provide art & design training in it too – that it’s not just all numbers and science – &  proper useful & enjoyable reflective practice training. It’s going to experience a (probably very slow but) beautiful renaissance – where things will be designed purposely with and for the user; whether that be the patient/citizen or the healthcare professional, using stories/narrative and lived experience and critical reflection in the process. That healthcare professionals have the tools to design things themselves too.

Whilst I am obviously very passionate about combining all of this together I attended a talk  last week by Elizabeth (Lizzy) Scott on the Femcare information strategy (Lizzy is radiotherapist leading this project) that’s undergoing within the radiotherapy department I train at.  I originally attended due to my passion for better patient information, but what this talk showed me was exactly the reason why it’s so incredibly important to think not just in terms of information; but the design and presentation of information and equipment is also equally as and incredibly  important in being able to enhance quality of life and treatment experience and compliance.

This Femcare information is aimed at patients who have had a radical course of radiotherapy treatment to the pelvic region. The side-effects of this treatment can have massive quality of life issues in the future for these patients, especially when it comes to their sex-life.

I believe, in general, we don’t talk enough about the effect of cancer on peoples’ sex lives and relationships, and their relationship with their body. Change goes deeper than the physical. It’s emotional. It’s psychological. It’s part of who you are. We know embracing the changes in intimacy can be one of the most challenging parts of feeling ‘you’ again. Butt issues like these can be – due to the very British nature of us – difficult to broach the subject – we may just brush it off – downplay it, really don’t want to talk about and feel embarrassed. We maybe really open to discuss it. But everyone is different and we need a strategy to reflect this.

The correct information early on is incredibly important in being able to facilitate better quality of life later on for these patients.  In the talk, we were given some leaflets – which had some pretty intense diagrams of how to use a clinical dilator, and of course a dry pastel rendition of some flowers  on the front to represent femininity? – how imaginative.

If you’re able to move past this leaflet, what comes next is the the dilators we provide – which are so clinical and intimidating and cold – as pictured below:

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I can’t imagine what a user group would say about using these after treatment – whilst I can’t stress enough that they’re extremely very valid and very important – and i’m glad we do provide them rather than nothing. It makes me think the people who designed them didn’t really *think* about the user – just the use of them.

Lizzy discussed how she – too – wanted to redesign the Femcare strategy,  including the leaflet and had done some research into finding better dilators that may be less intimidating but do the job. Her efforts were rewarded when she found http://pleasuresolutions.co.uk/  – a  company with an ambition to help people reconnect and explore new realities after cancer, sexually. Whose products are specifically designed with clinicians and patients and with Japanese production as pictured below (made from a gentle Unique SoftTouch material with anti-dust coating

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I’ve never seen such an obvious need for redesign and rethinking with empathy and the end-user than in this case.

Imagine what the change in outcomes and perceptions would be if we in the NHS used the latter, widely, in practice. I suspect it would only be much more positive with more compliance.

What all this reveals to me is that we – as HCP and as artists/designers/thinkers/researchers – should use our superpowers of empathy and prototyping. Underlying both of these is a commitment to learning — learning about people’s needs, learning through experimentation and trial, and arriving at a solution through  discovery.

Creativity isn’t being used to its full potential in healthcare today. There are many other creative disciplines that have a critical role to play too. It is critical to create the conditions in the healthcare industry for designers/artists — along with healthcare ‘natives’ — to put the disciplines of empathy and prototyping into action.

When sharing my thoughts with the department (when I was asked to, lol) I said we make children’s hospitals all more accessible and aesthetically pleasing – why don’t we do that for the general population because it’s obviously do-able. They instantly jumped on, “well they’d have the money to do that”. But the fact of the matter is – if you’re spending the money on doing something anyways (as they were in this instance), or paying for clinically intimidating equipment that has obvious potential negative user-implication – it is either cost-nutural or at least more cost effective in the long-term. We need to stop blaming funding as a reason not to do something, we need to see past the short-term. Co-production/design can help us save money in the long-run through impact and investment. 

I feel like I am just at the very, very beginning of this journey but I am committed to this change. I believe in the power of creative practice — people-centered design/thinking — to radically transform healthcare.

Creative practice has the power to:

  • share and curate compelling stories that reframe issues.
  • I have the ability to synthesize complexity down to actionable challenges.
  • open up real collaborative practice
  • reimagining tools that enable rather than disrupt the healthcare workflow and empower patients/carers
  • advocating for the patient through new services, communications & products.
  • and much more.

We’ve got far to go but here’s my first and most important challenge as this creative hybrid healthcare professional:

1# People feel understood and cared for.

 

I can’t wait to see what Lizzy does to re-invision and re-invigerate Femcare to help enhance patients quality of life. Go Lizzy!

Lasso The Moon

This week I was invited to #PatientsAsPartners16 event – It was organized in big part by Roz Davies – as part of Recovery Enterprises in Sheffield, NHS Confederation and Y & H Academic Health Science Network  & a bunch of other organizations and people.

Drawing events and workshops and conferences aren’t an unusual thing for me. It’s a huge part of my bread-and-butter. I  get to draw all kinda of things! From health & social-care, to technology, the government, to film, to education, to science, to social-media, to inspirational stories. You name it. I’ve had the opportunity to have a good draw of it. And in the 5 years of doing it, I’ve learnt a lot about subjects I never would have ever really thought about before. I’d love to, in the future, write a small book – based on all the things I’ve learnt as this “graphic facilitator”.

But  the ‘Patients as Partners’ event and working with Roz again reminded me of where this journey started for me. Back in 2012, I drew a  bunch of events for Roz and her colleagues at NHS England. It was all about trying to make the NHS more “people-powered”. We worked with patients and other service users like carers, ensuring they were part of the new design of PCTs turning into CCGs in march 2013. That the patient expertise and experience was central and a big part of helping local CCGs commission services that reflect the needs of their local community and patients.  That hopefully patients would be partners in this process, and not just an “involve a service user tick box” process.

And these “lay-members” and other patients relayed their experiences of having to navigate this fragmented system that just didn’t understand their needs – even though these needs represent the same needs of 1000’s more living with the same specific chronic medical conditions. And this misunderstanding, or even rejection of their needs, even though not done on  purpose or without care – was the start of a scaring and traumatic time for these people. But they didn’t give up.  They used their resilience to push forward new ideas, and new ways of working. Or setting things up to help others in similar positions. They learnt everything they could, they tried to redesign the system.

I had just started my medical journey at around the same time. And in the beginning it was fine, but the longer I was in this limbo position – the more I hated being a patient. I still hate it, probably even more. I feel judged, in not a good way. I feel ashamed – of myself for not being able to fix what’s happening, for not being stronger. I’m spoken to like I’m stupid. Healthcare professionals (worth noting not all of them, of course) say loaded sentences to me – try and blame things on me because I am “young and female” – seriously -. I feel bad for not fitting into the [healthcare] system (story of my life). I’m an issue, not an assest. I’m “complex in the way I present”. It’s so loaded.  I’m complex because I’m a human being and we are complex creatures, no?   Healthcare professionals can’t wait to discharge me – with no solutions or suggestions or even help. And I just think, my poor poor GP.

(I want to say that as noted in many posts that I have been shown incredible care & kindness by most HCPs and I think the NHS is phenomenal and has saved me in many ways – but that doesn’t mean there’s not issues or unkind words in the process)

And as someone who intrinsically makes connections across fields, knowledge, see how things are linked, no matter how big or small those connection are, who loves working with people, and coming up with creative ways – or trying new things/ways of seeing if something works. I find this whole process really rigid and foreign & I can’t understand why it’s like that? Because surely, people aren’t like this?!

And as a result of this old school way, I’m left completely alone. In constant pain – causing unnecessary health problems for future smizz as I try and figure out whether different things/medications/diets/ect will work. I’d be lying if this experience hasn’t made me Question the value and the worth of my own life. I’m often left feeling like I’m not even worth the time of the system because I’m complex and they’re not understanding how it has all affected me. Having to “live with it” without any direction, advice – or even hope – in what to do to help or move forward. It’s really, really hard.

Luckily, the struggle is my life. And I’m motivated by experience to try and make things better. And whilst I’d rather not have this pain and experiences, it makes me more empathetic to others struggles.

So, drawing all these events – where we’re trying to change culture, to redesign things so that actually we have care – not a just a stop and fix and go system – really resonated with me. And I thought if these people (patients) are using their experiences to make and design new things to compliment the system — then maybe I can use my own experience and my intuitive knowledge/creativity to be a better healthcare professional – and change the system that way. One -on One. Person by person. Making sure people feel listened to. Not judge anyone. And understand that sometimes it’s the really small things that make the biggest differences to someone, so not to just make assumptions. 3 years on, 7 weeks before I qualify, I try and make sure that no one leaves my care without knowing the support, plans and options for them going forward, and i always try and make sure they know that they can come back – – with questions, concerns, ideas. ect.

So that’s why I retrained. Due to hearing all these stories and seeing the virtue of human resilience. Not to back down, to help healthcare to become more than just instruction-based (practice, protocols) but also idea-based (critical thinking, envision ideas of others).

And the artist in me is integral to the process of helping to do this.  Patients as Partners discussed how we need to be more creative. We need to help people understand. We need to re-design new pathways, processes, community links, use peoples knowledge from lived experiences.  Nightingale showed that soldiers weren’t dying mainly on the battlefield, but instead they were dying in the hospitals due to the poor sanitary conditions there. Nightingale used this now famous diagram to influence hygiene practices in military hospitals, which resulted in lower mortality rates. The kind of design that Nightingale used can be thought of as, “Design to improve understandability.”  

For the past few years there’s been debate about healthcare reform. But for all the talk of funding and not being able to afford to do things, there’s a lot less talk about the stories and lives of the people who are the center:  patients and HCP.  And I believe art/design/creativity is going to help us bring the people, their knowledge, their experiences and co-produce things that matter and bring the people who matter to the center of it all (Although NHS does need WAY more funding, there’s no denying this ).

It’s hard to believe that 2012, doing the People Powered NHS and doing the Patient as Partners event in 2016 – of how much it has come together, of how much it has inspired my journey and thought process. And if that’s not proof that peoples stories can help change things and help us learn, help us to empathize, and grow – then I don’t know what is.

There remains a misconception that health is determined by health care. Through hoping to change things through art/design/creativity we can make cities healthier, we can involve the people who it affects, and learn from what helps/makes them worse, we can make people feel more empowered & valued, and in turn we can make people’s jobs feel more satisfied. And we will make the healthcare system more sustainable and caring in the process. And make society healthier and better in the long run.

It sounds all a bit grandiose but actually, after years of listening to people not giving up and showing how they’ve helped to change things locally and beyond through their lived experiences. It’s hard to ignore and not feel inspired. Hold onto ideas, esp when they’re considered risky. We can totally lasso the moon. I’m almost sure of it.

 

This is a great project that showcases the above: http://www.recoveryenterprises.co.uk/about/

Patients as Partners project will be written up into a report with recommendations.

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Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming

I recently received some incredible, completely surprising and insane(-ly good) news. 

As previously written on a few blog posts, I had applied for a PhD – not ever thinking I’d even get shortlisted, but I was happy with the learning process itself. Pushing myself forward, keeping my options open.

Before I fell poorly, and my life got all shook-up, I had an art practice-led-PhD proposal on my desktop for about a year. I wondered if I would ever be brave enough to submit it.  It was – at the time – something not super well researched. It was about Artwork and labour, and the dark-matter of the artworld – I was hoping to build upon my peers and artists who I greatly admire’s work – such as Gregory Sholette’s political activist artwork, like 1980’s PAD/D and his thesis on Dark Matter (which is one the best books ever on the subject IMHO); William Powhida’s  incredible practice on the Artworld power and structures; ARTWORK by Temporary Services; AREA Chicago’s work (that I was so lucky to have been an intern there in 2009 in Chicago, USA – under incredible people), Olivia Plender, Charles Avery, Tino Segal, ect ect.

 

But something didn’t feel right about this proposal.  Part of it was the proposal itself, and another part was probably my self-doubt, was I smart enough to do it? Could I justify my proposal?  And so I never submitted it. It didn’t matter much anyways, because the shit-hit the fan and the months proceeding this – my perspective changed after my life became obviously more temporary than I had imagined at 23/4. And I was left,  broken. My plans, my lil’ confidence I had left and my future-vision even more broken.

Art & Labour  became irrelevant to me, and with the recession and the popularity increase in socially engaged practices (yay!), my once some-what original PhD enquiry into art and labour became hot-topic. Diminishing any hopes at looking at it in the future.

I’ve never recovered from this illness experience. And I felt like I lost a part of who I was. For both better and for worse.

 

My desire to do this art & labour PhD got replaced  by my desire to change healthcare practice for the better. To make the patient pathway better.  As described many times before in these posts – my personal experiences mixed  with having this intuitive feeling about art & designs possibilities in creating a better healthcare experience and system – whether through designed medical devices (think IDEO), to architectural planning of spaces, art-therapy, using creative ways to map the patients experience or journey to generate things, to app-design and virtual reality. The possibilities are completely almost endless. It’s so exciting, but I also don’t think culturally we’ve got there to accepting it as one of our best tools (of many) to make things better.
So I re-trained, in radiotherapy & oncology to help me be part of the system to make sure I always listen to our patients and I felt that radiotherapy was this area that’s open to innovation.  And I’ve had a blast. I’m actually really good at what I do, who knew? I sometimess get 98-99-100% in my assessments, and I often get compliments & recommendations off my patients about my care, not too shabby for someone without any science background. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in this process, and built my knowledge and skill set further. And I feel such a good part of the teams I work with in the clinical setting.  But it has been ridonkulously hard. There’s no denying this. Especially whilst trying to juggle part-time work, and crappy health-issues. It’s been a battle. A healthcare course really tests you, and your resilience.
 

I felt that being an artist, I could use all my criticality skills and creative abilities to make this change. I felt that art had a place here.And i’ve flexed it out:
I made the first ever radiotherapy patient info app & won a bunch of awards.
I made the A-Z radiotherapy handbook comic
I made the faces of healthcare website of stories
I made an interactive radiation oncology revision group using twitter, storify, google docs and tumblr.
I made the first ever student-led conference dedicated to radiotherapy & oncology.
And a bunch of other things, which you can see here: http://radiotherapysmizz.tumblr.com/

 

Then I saw a call out for PhD proposals.
I was amidst in applying for radiotherapy jobs. I had been told that some of my ideas were “just too ambitious” in my first rad job interview, and then a few weeks later an informal chat with someone who previously worked in clinical-practice told me that: “I need to stay within my band, it’s not a band 5’s role to think of making things better”. Which started to give me a sinking feeling.
I’m a true believer in transformational leadership – whereby everyone – whether a porter, or service user, or volunteer, or student, or band 5 or band 8 HCP – can suggest an idea to make things better – because they’re the ones who experience the system in their way. And may see it from a different perspective – and that we all have equal responsibility: to practice safe and compassionate care. And to work together – effectively and collaboratively – to make things better. It doesn’t matter where you stand. As Judy Hopps says in Zootopia (AN AMAZING MOVIE THAT YOU HAVE TO SEE!) “Life’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.”

 

So, I emailed my amazing Radiotherapy professor – Heidi Probst – and told her how I really saw creative practice/methodologies as a way to make change in healthcare. She instantly helped me out, said she’d be willing to talk through things. She pointed out her call out for breast/trunk odeama  (something that had come up with my app with a previous patient who was on an award panel – as I hadn’t included it in the side-effects – showing specifically why this needs to be researched as we’re not really taught about it in practice -i hadn’t really thought about it) and the quality of life issues associated with these patients – and we discussed how a creative way would be able to bring out these narratives – in a way that more well-known scientific qualitative methods aren’t able to do. To really make the people heard.
 

Sheffield Hallam has a unique research center called Lab4Living – it’s this super cool place that combines art & design practices to healthcare research. It’s a collaboration between art & health & wellbeing. So I saw this proposal sit right in the middle. A collaboration – and interdisciplinary investigation – with an outcome of a rich diverse narrative in many visual forms – it would be both art and health. I was advised by a bunch of academics to submit it to both departments – both art & health – because it was both, after all – and I felt that I’d do the same kind of work where ever I was based. So I did. I submitted the same proposal. Not expecting ANYTHING in return. No shortlist. Nothing. Just this increased knowledge that this massive gap in patient information and care exists for breast/trunk odema.

And honestly – for about a month – I thought of nothing more other than the plight of these people. I began to see people with trunk swelling on their posterior thorax with no advice in clinical practice. And this whole experience intensified something. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. It feels like it has heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is, and how every act is a contribution to a finite set of acts, that should be contributing to a bettering of the world (in whatever form that takes). Thinking constellations and not just stars.

Then I got shortlisted in 2 departments – and I panicked. I never envisioned this to happen. in-my-wildest-dreams!

So, after feeling like I was betraying both departments – I interviewed in both departments – each time feeling like I had let myself and the people who had given me this chance down. Both departments asked for 2 different kinds and types of presentations. PhD interviews are really hard to judge! I expected my chance to end there.

I don’t really know what happened in between.

There’s a quote that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about having to let go of our planned life, to allow us to get to the life that’s waiting for us.

And when I fell sick, I let go of my planned life. And I went into radiotherapy but for a long while i just didn’t know what was waiting for me. And that has been one of the hardest parts. I now feel like maybe this is what’s been waiting for me. This beautiful combination of practices – both creative and health.

“You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than 1 way.” —Marvin Minsky

After much soul-searching. And I mean, really soul searching. I decided art would be the best place to sit – for the freedom. Though this decision did not come easily.

Getting this fully-funded PhD scholarship in art feels like I’ve come home. I’ve been lost, but I’ve been found. Changed but not fully forgotten. For a few years now I have been caught up between all that was and all that could have been and be. You feel lost.  As soon as the bones mend, you forget about the fracture, but you don’t forget that experience that lead to it.

It’s a bittersweet moment because I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Heidi’s help, and I wouldn’t even be interested in making healthcare better through creative methodologies if I never fell sick in the first place.

My great friend Magda pretty much sums  up the bittersweetness perfectly with her quote to me: “Life sometimes gives us lousy hand of cards and we play it like it was fucking aces!! that’s what we do.” Someone make this into a motivational poster.

It is at this juncture that I want to REALLY thank all the people who has made this possible – a reality- Heidi, Alex Robinson,  Jo Doughty, Laura P –  all the people in art – Becky Shaw, Kathy D, Penny M, Claire — so many, many other people  – ALL OF MY FRIENDS & my mom & nan & bro – for all of your help. For taking a chance on me, for believing I could do a PhD, for inspiring and advising, for your belief in making healthcare better. For hoping for a better future for these patient. For all the talks, for all your time, supporting me. For taking a risk.

I am endlessly grateful. I know I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for these people. I never take anything for granted and I feel like I can never repay y’all.

For everyone whose had a dream, and for all the working class kids who get told they can’t even make it to university — this is for you. We can do this.

Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.

My new chapter begins in September. And I am SO nervous.

No risk, No adventure.
To innovating healthcare by focusing on people & their experiences!

Your good friend,
Hopefully, future Dr. Smizz 😉

PS: my radiotherapy career isn’t over either.

 

 

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What does a radiotherapist do and how it’s given me life advice for the future #worldradiographyday

I often get asked, “You *just* take x-rays, right?” When people ask what I do and I say, “Radiotherapy”. (I do – in fact – take some ‘x-rays’ but that’s not my main-specific role).

Sometimes they know a lil’ bit more and ask, “Soooo, you *just* set up the machines?” (The machines are these 1 million pound things called linear accelerators). Like that’s all we do, “set-them up”.

But I love telling people what radiotherapists do and i love it when people want to know more. We’re the somewhat misunderstood colleagues of the radiography world. We’re not radiologists – we don’t interpret your scans and diagnose from there, we’re not diagnostic radiographers you see for an X-Ray when you fall down the stairs.

We’re the people you seem to only learn about after you’ve seen our other radiography colleagues and if you have cancer (or some limited benign conditions) in yours or a loved ones life. Some people luckily have no cancer narrative in their past and come across our profession from twitter/internet, others from university prospectus books, their love of physics and imaging. Occassionally if people are on it, we get some national coverage.

Radiotherapy is a cancer treatment that about 40-50% of people diagnosed with cancer will have as part of their treatment. It can be used to reduce symptoms, and most importantly: pain. It’s often a curative, cost effective, and often non-invasive treatment.  And how we do that is by generating a plan of treatment.  That plan aims to deliver a high dose of radiation  over a series of fractions (days) (generated usually by high-energy xrays [photons]) targeted at the tumour extremely precisely, and any microscopic disease (GTV*, CTV* & PTV*) and any lymph involvement as specified by the doctor.

We don’t just “press a button” or “set up the machines”. We have 3 years training specifically within oncology to begin with. We learn all about cancer, radiobiology, cells, immunotherapies, chemotherapies, surgeries, staging systems, global health, prevention, end of life care, person-centered-care, psycho-social issues, financial implications, ect. We learn  all about radiological physics and imaging and some basics on imaging engineering. We constantly keep up to date with world-class research. Then we spend months & months on clinical placement, for 3 years, including all summer, critically reflecting, learning to effectively collaboratively work together, learning how to deal with life and potential problems and techniques and protocols specific for your center, specific for each person and their cancer. Basically, we’re properly specialized in clinical radiation oncology.

Pre-treatment

We work in ‘pre-treatment’. Here is often the first point of contact that the patient has with a radiotherapy department after being diagnosed and a course of radiotherapy is prescribed. We try to put the patient at ease, give them a first day chat letting them know what we will be doing and any questions they may have, let them get to know us for a bit, and we visually and through asking questions assess how the patient is and any needs they may have. Sometimes they have to have specialist immobalization made such as masks, and radiographers do this too.

We figure out the best position for their treatment, and make sure its as comfortable as it can be to withstand weeks of that position, whilst ensuring its reproducible and stable. We generate all the ‘set-up’ information for their treatment: their position, making sure they’re straight, not rotated, that our set-up position is in a stable location, where we decide to put some ‘tattoos’. Always assessing, always analysing. Then we do a planning CT scan – much like diagnostic radiographers would with the patient in this position. It always has to be a CT (though we often fusion images together such as PET & MRI) as CT gives us tissue density to plan each beam/field effectively.

Planning

From here after the image has been contoured (Organs at Risk [OAR] & tumour being outlined) by the doctor (some places the radiographers do it too) radiotherapists plan where each field goes. They have to get rid of any hot spots, make sure all the tumour and surrounding margins have a 95-105% dose homogenous dose coverage whilst avoiding near by healthy tissue. It’s not the easiest task and each persons body is completely different. How exciting right?

Checking & revisiting

From here that plan goes to physics to be checked, then back to the doctor. Some of these plans will be discussed in Multi Disciplinary Team meetings with doctors, radiation oncologists and radiologists, physics and radiotherapists. Once satisfied, the plan and set-up sheets, and prescription gets another double check – by 2-3 radiographers. This – from start (CT planning scan) to fully planned and checked is about a 2 week process.

On Set / treatment

Then it’s time for the patients first official day on treatment. We check everything, look at the wedges, the monitor units, think about where the patient will be on the bed and the angles of the beams. Many more verification techniques happen here. We get the patient on the bed, after giving them another first day chat and looking after their skin and side-effect advice, guide them into that same position, make sure they’re straight and not rotated. Use those tatoos and set-up sheets to guide us. We check SSDs, positions, angles, we take images to verify and image match. This is that bit where we ” *just* set-up the machine”. Once we’re happy with everything and again double checked everything from patient ID, and RR numbers to monitor units and angles and beams and fields and position and much more. We press that button and deliver that life-saving treatment.

But what’s just as important as checking our images, checking everything else is correct and safe. Is that our patient is OK !!

Treatment day is another huge milestone for our patients and their loved ones. Often, because radiotherapy is so under advertised and unknown about, or the media portrays it wrong and factually incorrect – our patients can be really nervous/anxious. What is this Linear Accelerator? What exactly DO WE DO?! Will it hurt? Does it burn my skin?

This is where the radiotherapists great person-cenetered skills come into play. It’s my favourite part of the job. It really makes my day when you’re able to establish a rapport/trust with one of your patients and make them feel better/more at ease. Often it’s just letting them tell you their story. It’s often been a difficult path to where they are today. Months and months of being undiagnosed with symptoms that took ages to pin-point. A bad chemotherapy reaction, trying to juggle work and picking up their kids, the 2 hour drive to the hospital from their house, ect. It takes time and empathy to be able to get this person to trust you and your team. You get to share your knowledge to put their worries at ease. And this is the best part of the job for me.

Unlike most of our other radiography colleagues, we get to see our patients every single day for their treatment. This could be every work day for 7 weeks! That’s quite a long time. It’s exactly the reason why I specifically chose radiotherapy. I wanted a healthcare profession where I could get to know my patients. A lil’ bit like a GP has the potential to do so.  How that continuity of care enables you to easily see any change in the person who might not let you know something is wrong. How each day you peal another layer over, you slowly find out who they live with, do they have any pets, their intricate details of their lives, honeymoons, holidays, work. I’ve treated gold-medal winners, people who run magazines, who owned planes, who volunteer their whole spare time for the most vulnerable. You hear some stories that will stay with you for the rest of your life and there’s people who you’ll think about months later. There’s some stories that you feel in the pit of your stomach, and there’s moments of pure joy that nothing will compare to. You’ll learn these details and it helps you make some assessments. Is this person frail and has no one at home to look after them? Can we get them some clean clothes? Can we refer them – ask if they want to see someone for specific type of support (complimentary therapies/financial advice ect). You can figure out if they’re following your side-effect advice or not. There’s a lot of potential for radiographers here to make a huge difference to someone, and i love that responsibility.

Service Improvement & research

And then there’s another cool thing radiographers do. We can use our practice to implement service improvement changes or undertake & create world-class-life-saving research. I see the future of radiotherapists moving more into preventative, on-going-care and recovery/post-treatment care.  I’m so passionate about us helping to support our patients and their loved ones. The health-gap is going to be one that continues to grow under our ever growing unfair and unequal society. And cancer – the diagnosis and the survival-rates of it – is a product of the gap. I believe we will see more radiographers moving into this discourse and helping our patients live a better life – during and after treatments. Survivorship can be so rocky, so it’s a given that with all our specialist knowledge that we should enable to help commission, produce and create services that can support our patients.

Being a radiotherapy student isn’t easy. It’s very full time, there’s a lot of different skills to master, juggle many types of work from clinical knowledge to academic stuff; you have to become a commealian – you adapt yourself to which ever team personality you’re working with. You need to master time management (I’ve not fiigured this out yet). I found I take longer to do the more technical stuff – I believe this is because as an artist I’m not used to thinking so routinely and logically. I’m having to retrain my brain – but I love the challenge. And after those great weeks you have on clinical placement, when a patient is so thankful, when you put someone at ease – made them laugh. It all some how feels worth it. You go home with a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s kind of indescribable. By the end, because of the continuity of care – it’s like you’re treating old friends.

Being a radiotherapy student has given me a lot of perspective and new skills I never knew I could do.  i’Ve learnt that whenever you can’t think of something to say in a conversation, ask people questions instead. Even if you’re next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts, and you never know when it will be useful.

life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.

And as I read somewhere: see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes,  and never, ever start smoking.

HAPPY WORLD RADIOGRAPHY DAY.

Getting sick was (is) the worst thing that ever happened to me, but

Last week Facebook memories reminded me that the exact week in 2012, I wrote on my Facebook status that I was finally seeing a NHS haemotologist oncologist after my crazy USA medical adventure. I have certain dates etched into my collective memory, which feel like I’ll never be able to erase , even if I wanted to. But this date had slipped my memory.  In the facebook status I wrote how many people had sent so many great and supportive messages and had helped me so much. The same still stands today.
Every so often I get a message from someone who’s heard my story, seen my whining tweets/blog,  or I get contacted by various volunteer coordinators for my work with and fundraising for various charities.
Every time, I’m nervous about how the call or the email will go.
But what happens is that they get in touch and often share with me these amazing, personal, intimate stories. These stories are of hardship, courage, loneliness, heaviness, of life and death. Of feeling disempowered, the feeling of the weight of time.
Will I be able to help them? What will I say to this person who’s going through what I know is probably the hardest thing they’ve ever done? I see and feel it every day at work too.
And EVERY TIME, every day I’m amazed.
Amazed by how optimistic and brave people can be, even when they’re terrified. Amazed that even when their life, or loved ones life, was/is on the line and there’s little they can do, we can laugh together about pain, side effects, the dumb things that go along with this life with whatever the struggle is.
Raising money to try and get Radiotherapy in Doncaster ( http://justgiving.com/sarah-smizz1 ) has opened up another opportunity for people to share their stories with me. I feel constantly humbled, and touched that they’ve chosen to share their narrative with me, and want to support me too.
 It reminded me of this website a friend showed me based in Canada, about the faces of healthcare. I think I am going to make something similiar in the UK. I am going to create a beautiful visual platform to help share peoples stories to help us learn from and build better connections and services, and make us think as healthcare professionals how we connect with people. And to also help celebrate not only these peoples lives & struggles, but also how awesome the NHS and it’s staff are too.
This time of year always makes my wounds feel rawer, but my need to thank and be grateful gets more intense too.
 Getting sick was (is) the worst thing that ever happened to me, but in so many ways it brought out the best in me. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it does the same in others.
3 weeks & 5 days till I can go OTT on giving thanks. FRIENDSGIVING, and y’all are all invited 🙂

In search of a resolution

Before i embarked on my North American clinical & holiday experience, my GP suggested that maybe I should talk to someone who has the time to listen — about everything — from my crazy medical journey to my past dotted with potential traumas. So after a few days of being back in the UK, I saw that recommended counsellor to talk about my nearing 4-5 year medical journey.

I wasn’t best pleased about the idea. It felt like a personal failure. I wasn’t even sure what we’d even talk about — and I certainly wasn’t pleased about the potential things he might make me do – a group session of our feelings perhaps, keeping diaries, ect? Really not Smizz style. But I duly went along because I’ll do anything to feel better, or cope better, and if my nearly upcoming 2 year long headache is something to do with a personal-trauma then let’s get it sorted.

But I was pleasantly surprised. VERY surprised.  I can’t explain how nice it was to just talk to someone impartial who listened compassionately – who was really helpful. He was consistently open. And I don’t think I’ve ever had someone so good at listening, listen to me before. I spoke about how hard it’s been. How misunderstood  & alone I feel in the (health) system. The constant feeling like my time is limited. How I want to make a positive difference. How i feel like a hindrance – to friends, and the NHS. How it’s completely changed my life upside down, inside out, and all the big adjustments I’ve had to make to keep living life as normally as i can. how it affects my work, my relationships, my social time. How it’s hard to live life normally, when it’s no longer my normal life. He made lots of suggestions – including that I should continue to live my life to the fullest.  I left feeling a lil bit lighter. With more food for thought. Because I’ve been dealing with everything alone for some time now, I’ve read A LOT of stuff out there on coping with life adjustments, chronic illnesses, chronic fatigue & pain – ect, ect. And I’ve adapted A LOT of these into my life, so I’m coping well, so I don’t have to go back unless I want to go back and chat – whenever – — since I’m already doing what some of the services offer – and have an awesome support system of friends & fam (who read my whiney long emails and blog posts and tweets). It was especially nice when he said I should be proud for how far i’ve come & how i’ve coped. And that feels weird that I needed to be praised for it — but I guess I needed my struggle to be acknowledged on some level – to feel like I’ve been heard & that it’s been really difficult.

I tell the world wide web about this experience because i know I put off ever going. But I’d recommend and encourage anyone going through something that has changed your life, a struggle- current – ongoing – or past that has changed you, something that’s not resolved itself, if you’re feeling really low, alone, need someone to listen to you – you should go (it’s free, obvs – and it’s really not like you’d expect it be. I genuinely can’t say how good it was) You’re not alone . The cancer of so many struggles is feeling like you need to deal with it in isolation. & it’s difficult because certain (medical) experiences are all uniquely personal. But let others help carry your burden. I know that I’m super lucky because I’ve always got friends and fam who will help me carry the burden – but there’s always more – there’s always stuff there that you didn’t know was there.

So I was up this morning, watching this sunrise — thinking.

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There’s a lot I don’t know, there’s a lot I’m still learning. When I think I’m letting go, I find that my body its still burning. 
And I’m still held down, and Its still got me living in the past. Come on and pick me up. Someone help me clear this wreckage from the blast. But i’m alive. & I don’t need a witness to know that I survived. I’m not looking for forgiveness but I need a light in the dark to search for a resolution.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone from 0 to 100. I’m going to try and start rock climbing (once i get my dodgy foot looked at) – i’m back on my fixie and I’ve told myself — I’m going to go a search for the Northern Lights over this next year.  I really want to use this crazy medical/life experience to make the pathways so much better for future patients / service users. We should see every act as a contribution to a finite set of acts, all building to a contribution of goodness to the world. We should not delay working on the things that make us feel alive in the world, and help the world feel alive. We spend so little time trying to make the most out of the time we get. Your time is too valuable to let a moment go to waste. Steal as much life as you can out of each day