‘The Patient at the Heart’ — An Interview With Helena Durham
By Benedict Cross
Edited by Annie Agathopoulou
This interview was conducted and written by Benedict Cross, an MA graduate from the University of Nottingham’s creative writing programme, while he was studying here. Benedict has recently published work with Fairlight Books, The Nottingham Poetry Exchange, The 87 Press and Seedling Poets.
I meet Helena Durham in a museum cafe on the twelfth of December. Jingly Christmas music is playing by the counter, and there’s a background chatter as we sit down. She asks me if I’ve voted yet.
Durham is a softly spoken woman, and tells me how after working as a nurse, she did a postgraduate degree in Creative and Professional Writing. The letter she wrote for The Letters Page, ‘Have You Considered an Audio Version?’, is about her then imminent cataract extraction and the history of ophthalmology. ‘I’ve always had sight problems,’ she says, ‘which is probably kind of what drew me into that area in the first place.’
She explains that The Letters Page inspired her to write due to her irritation at its illegibility. ‘I’d always thought that, with The Letters Page, it’s a bit annoying that it comes out in a PDF, in Times New Roman, because for sight-impaired people those are really difficult formats. You can’t reformat it into a word document, you can’t increase the size of it, so it was a tricky thing to read. I just thought, oh, I’ll send in a little letter about whether it could be made available in alternative formats, to be more accessible to people. So that was how that letter came about.’
When I ask Durham if she reads many literary journals she replies that she doesn’t, because a lot of them come in typed format. However, ‘this inaccessibility of literature, of literary journals’, as she calls it, is something that motivates her. Accessibility is also what she’s putting her writing skills into nowadays, by rewriting sections of the Queen’s Medical Centre’s website into a more patient-friendly language. ‘I’ve got the professional writing skills from the [postgraduate] course. I wouldn’t be doing that had I not done the degree and that study in the more technical side of writing.’
But along with her writing background assisting with her nursing, her profession means that if she had to write about any scientific subject ‘it would be about nursing science. I think there’s much more of an interface in the kind of writing that is about the person and the science, whereas if you look at a lot of medical papers it’s much more about the physical science. Personally, because that’s my background, I’m always thinking about the impact of a physiological condition and trying to make things reflect the human experience of science, or of the biological malfunctions.’
Durham contrasts this creative work with much of the academic writing about medical science. ‘If you look at a lot of academic medical writing, it is more interested in the treatment or the surgical technique. Although it is all for the benefit of the patient, there’s less emphasis on the psychological and social impact on people. That’s my personal interest.’
And this is where the humanities come in. She takes out a copy of The Lumen, a now-defunct literary journal in which she has also been published. The Lumen’s website, still operational even though the journal has gone out of publication, introduces it as ‘a journal of the mutual dialogue between medicine, the arts and the humanities’1. ‘They try to enhance the person still at the centre of everything’, Durham says. ‘My hope in trying to get anything like that published,’ she explains of the purpose of her writing to The Lumen, ‘is that other people will recognise some of their own experience in that. And were an ophthalmic surgeon to read that, they might think a bit more about the human impact.’
I flick through The Lumen. It’s their Summer 2016 issue, ‘The Sharp and Numb’, the final one before the journal ceased publishing. The issue’s theme is trauma. Durham’s poem, ‘Dissociation’, is there, about ‘that numbing side that trauma can have’, along with other works of poetry, paintings, even photographs of half-dissected china dolls. Durham is a great believer in the value of a creative hobby for medical professionals. ‘As someone working in the field, you always benefit from having something outside your discipline to rub against,’ she explains, ‘And perhaps it will make you do things in a different way or use a different approach.’ However, one shouldn’t allow creativity to entirely overwhelm science. ‘I think writers have a duty, if they’re including science in fiction, to research it and make sure it’s right. They’ll lose credibility anyway,’ she concludes, ‘if a scientist picks it up.’
She didn’t write ‘Dissociation’ specifically for The Lumen, Durham goes on to explain. ‘I’d written the poem beforehand, the poem fitted The Lumen, I saw [the Summer 2016 issue] had these themes, and I thought ‘Ah, I have just the thing’.’ So I sent it to them, and much to my surprise, they said yes. It was the first time I’d sent anything anywhere, absolutely nobody knew me, and yet they picked it. It was just one of those special things.’
‘In some ways,’ she continues, ‘I think the creative stuff has made me a more poetic technical writer. All writing comes into all communication. All the skills that you learn about, conciseness, preciseness, making sure that the other person is going to take from it as much as you intended them to take. All those skills that you learn bleed into everything.’ Still, her professional writing has the same objective as her creative writing — to foreground the human being at the centre of medical science. ‘I belong to the patient partnership group, to ensure that whatever they’re doing, the patient is at the heart of it.’
Finally, I ask Durham about the writing process of ‘Have You Considered an Audio Version?’. ‘I was both a bit irritated — here’s another thing I can’t read — and also anxious.’ However, writing her letter six hours before her cataract operation was a reassuring experience. ‘I got into it the more I wrote, I felt a bit calmer, and then I just got interested. I love the history of how this amazing revolution in eye care has come about. It’s just an extraordinary, amazing thing. I think it did take me away from my own personal concerns of ‘will I see the sky again?’, and became a bit of an intellectual exercise, thinking about it all and then crafting it.’
‘Have You Considered An Audio Version?’ reflects on the development of ophthalmic surgery over time, from the sticks of the 6th century BC to 21st century intraocular lenses. ‘So that was a good distraction from worrying about what is to come. On the other side of it is it’s quite reassuring as well, because you think ‘we’re not in those days. We are in the now, and it’s so much safer.’
When writing her letter, she was careful to balance the technical explanation of the operation with the human being subjected to it. ‘We want a bit of personal but don’t want it to be all me-me-me, because it’s not a sob story, it’s not as biographical as that. But then it was important to bring it back to the personal, to kind of shape it in that way, because actually it started out quite personally and so it needed to come back to that at the end.’
The scientific discussion is also mitigated with humorous language. ‘I think if I’d used a very technical word,’ Durham explains, ‘then people might have lost the thread, and then they would have just turned it off, wouldn’t they?’ Lightening the language was also particularly useful to her because of the gruesome surgical details. ‘Quite a lot of people are very sensitive about their eyes, and the thought of ‘Oooh, I don’t want that!’. So in trying to lighten it in that sense, you hope that won’t put the squeamish off.’
With this balance between the science and the human maintained, Durham hopes to successfully preserve her central ethos in her writing. ‘Always, always have each individual person at the centre of what you were doing.’
Find Helena Durham’s piece ‘Have You Considered an Audio Version?’ (published with The Letters Page in 2015) in our archive.
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