New term: new texts: new normal?

The Covid-19 pandemic is so ubiquitous it would be perverse not to focus on it in this year’s Literature & Medicine module, so we are. (Having said that, I’m planning be perverse in the second term and escape from the pandemic, metaphorically, into Elaine Feeney’s As You Were.)

The low-hanging, extremely appealing option (though problematic in a number of respects) would be Camus’ deep-dive novel, The Plague, of course. But as I’m determined to play my part in overturning the patriarchy, I cannot ignore the almost complete absence of female characters in that novel (not to mention native Algerians); and anyhow I want to put female authors first. (I will, however, be quoting from Camus where it sheds additional light on the theme.)

So, without any reservations, I’m opting for Emma Donoghue’s just-published The Pull of the Stars. It is set in Dublin in 1918, with a focus on the suffering caused by the Spanish Flu as reflected in one small hospital ward. Another plus is that is narrated by a woman. And another is that she is a nurse. Another is that it is a maternity ward. All fitting in perfectly with the underlying (occasionally explicit) principles of my courses.

Additional reading:

Fergus Shanahan’s new study The Language of Illness, especially the last chapter, ‘The Language of Plagues and Pandemics’ > (Here’s a link to the recent launch of that book > and I’d particularly draw your attention in our context to the contribution of Professor Mary Horgan of UCC, consultant in infectious diseases.)

Michael D Higgin’s speech from last year on remembering the Spanish Flu >

Surprisingly, at least to me, we are running the classes, at least for now, face-to-face, in a classroom. So, I’ll be feeling a bit anxious, and I imagine some or all of the students will be too. While reading and talking about a deadly virus that spread rapidly through communities across the globe 100 years ago, specifically in Dublin city centre, we’ll be doing our best to avoid contributing to the spread of another deadly virus, specifically in Dublin city centre. If we’re not careful, we could end up creating the perfect setting for a new work of existential fiction.


Dear every cancer patient I ever took care of, I’m sorry. I didn’t get it.

Oncology nurse, Lindsay Norris writes about how her own experience of having cancer made her realise she hadn’t fully understood as a healthcare worker what her patients were going through during treatment, despite thinking she had.

“Even though healthcare workers don’t really know what it’s like to be you (well, us) it’s ok. Nobody does. I just hope that I was still able to give you a little guidance and strength to help you get through your cancer treatment. Even if I didn’t get it.” 

Read the full article here >>> 

Aidan Halligan on compassion

A hotel in Glasgow called the Intercontinental about a year ago, a man was staying there with his son. At the end of dinner one evening the man went up to the maître d, saying thank you for a wonderful dinner. “You’ve probably seen us coming here on a regular basis. The reason I come here is that my son is having treatment for Leukemia nearby. Unfortunately it’s not working and tomorrow we are starting chemotherapy. Tonight we’re going up to his room and I’m going to shave his head completely bald and I’m going to shave my own to be supportive of him. The reason I’m telling you is that I know it’s going to be a bit of a change and a surprise for everyone working here and I wonder would you be able to ask them not to stare when we come down for breakfast.” When the two of them came down for breakfast the next morning, five of the waiters had shaved their heads.

Thom Gunn on empathy

Save the word
empathy, sweetheart,
for your freshman essays.
Doesn’t it make
A rather large claim?
Think you can
syphon yourself
into another human
as, in the movie,
the lively boy-ghosts
pour themselves
down the ear-holes
of pompous older men?
Don’t try it. Only
Jesus could do it and he
probably didn’t exist.
Try `sympathy.’ With that
your isolated self may
split a cloak with a beggar,
slip a pillow under the head
of the arrested man, hold tight
the snag-toothed hustler with red hair.

“Hello, my name is…”

Katy McGuinness

“What I do have a problem with is that not one of the four healthcare professionals that I interacted with during the two-and-a-half hours that I was in the hospital introduced themselves to me, or explained why they, in particular, were called in to deal with my problem.

And only one of them was wearing a badge. So I was left to figure out for myself who they were and what their various roles were.

In the United Kingdom, a young doctor called Kate Granger has launched an initiative called “Hello My Name Is”, which encourages everyone working in hospitals and healthcare to introduce themselves to their patients using proper eye contact (the kind that all parents despair that their children will ever learn until, one day, miraculously it clicks) and a smile.” … (Independent) >

Dr Ronan Kavanagh observes that perhaps the best doctors are the ones who display empathy at the right time and place

A loss of emotional empathy with our patients is also one of the first things to disappear in doctors who burn out through stress, exhaustion and depression. Many doctors and other healthcare workers can still continue to work despite the loss of empathy, of course. But removing genuine caring from a healthcare interaction results in an experience reminiscent to being dealt with by an overwhelmed, undervalued, unhappy airport employee. Upsetting when your flight is delayed, but potentially catastrophic in healthcare. (Medical Independent) >

Perspectives on and reactions to the neglected, forgotten and exploited

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Using extracts from Donnacha Rynne’s Being Donnacha (11 & 16), Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Country Doctor’s Notebook (‘Morphine’), JD O’Connor’s BMJ ‘Looking Back’ piece about her days practising in the Yorkshire Dales, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli and Julia Donaldson’s version of The Magic Paintbrush, we discussed various representations of neglected, forgotten and exploited groups of people/communities and how different types of people perceive them and react to the inequality in different ways.

Like Donnacha says about “people promosing to visit and then not doing so”, leaving him feeling that “there is always something missing from my life”, so too is Polyakov (in ‘Morphine’) let down and abandoned by his profession, and so too the people of Gagliano & Matera (in Christ Stopped at Eboli) have been forgotten by progress and medical science (unlike the people of Yorkshire?). In contrast, Shen (in The Magic Paintbrush) does not abandon her people OR her principles; Levi loves the peasants and cares for them like a saviour; O’Connor, like Shen, is already one of the community in terms of class, though she has to overcome the cultural and gender divide to be fully accepted and trusted.

Donnacha and Luisa (Levi’s sister) feel angry and would like something to be done, but Donnacha is unfortunately confined mostly to expressing it and internalising it, whereas Luisa and Shen (and you) have the privilege/responsibility/ability to act on it. Or maybe, like Levi and Bomgard (/Bulgakov) you will be more inclined to draw attention to the problems you witness through writing and thereby inspire others to act.

In your medical career, you WILL encounter your own Gagliano/Gorelovo/Yorkshire/neglected group, and the system/society (Emperor) will try to turn you away from being overly concerned for them. Whether you use your paint brush like Shen to act or like Levi to reflect, just make sure you don’t turn your back entirely (unless it is to protect yourself from too deep an engagement which could threaten your OWN well being).

Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art, at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in UCC

Fiona Kearney, who has curated the show in association with Prof Fergus Shanahan of the APC, says she wanted the show to be empathetic. “While there have been a number of exhibitions which have used a diagnostic eye, there have been very few, if any, which have looked at it from a patient’s perspective,” says Kearney. “We felt that to really honour that, it was important to structure the show in that way.” (Examiner) >

‘Yue Yue’ video is gruesome, but we’re all prone to bystander effect

The Yue Yue video is gut-wrenching and gruesome, a graphic illustration of the harrowing power of indifference. It is so profoundly affecting that it demands interpretation: to deal with the horrific behaviour it depicts we transform it into metaphor for a lack of Chinese empathy or social decay. It’s the only way to impose meaning on something that seems so incomprehensible.

… imagine if, every time we walked by someone passed out on the footpath, it was filmed and edited into a reel of our indifference: we would be deeply ashamed of our collective callousness and realise that, yes, we are all prone to the bystander effect. (Times) >