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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Thursday Post: To Helsinki and Back with Tools of the Trade

Image: Time for a Check Up by Alex Proimos, under a Creative Commons licence
Image: Time for a Check Up by Alex Proimos, under a Creative Commons licence

Dr John Gillies OBE FRCGP FRCPE is a medical doctor who is former chair of the Scottish Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and co-editor of the SPL's anthology for newly graduating doctors Tools of the Trade, alongside Dr Lesley Morrison, Revd Ali Newell and Kate Hendry. Here, he discusses talking in Finland recently about his experiences of editing the anthology and using poetry in medicine.

Poetry travels well. It was a pleasure to talk about Tools of the Trade, the Scottish Poetry Library’s book of poems for new doctors in Scotland, to an invited audience of academics and non-medical practitioners from Finland, Scandinavia and USA at the University of Helsinki in April. I was asked because of work that the University of Edinburgh Compassion Initiative has been involved in through their Compassion / Co-passion project.

The theme of the two-day conference was embodying compassion, and the links between this, the workplace, and organisational life. Different sessions were led by an artist, a musician, some neuroscientists, psychologists, and, most challenging for me, an interpretive dance specialist.  Not your average medical meeting, then.

The focus of the session I led concerned the power of poetry to appeal to both head and heart, intellect and emotion, and the way in which that can open up to new doctors a different way of seeing the patient in front of them, as well as the illness that patient has. We explored the other aim of the book – to provide for the new doctors ‘a friend to carry with you and consult when you need comfort, inspiration or connection with the outside world’. I asked people to read and comment on some of the poems featured in Tools of the Trade. Diana Hendry’s ‘Poem for a Hospital Wall’ made everyone smile, and the last lines of Valerie Gillies’s ‘To my surgeon’ – ‘I am / held / by your hand / saving my life’ – were quoted and commented on in the final round-up session. The surgeon’s hand, in that poem and Michael Rosen’s ‘These are the hands’, are very practical embodiments of compassion.

I had wondered whether the poems might lose something in translation, but Finns speak and understand English very well, and the clarity of the poems shone through readily.

In one-to-one discussions afterwards, it was interesting how often people, in settings from Finland to Colorado, talked about their experiences of meeting with doctors, how varied these were and how important the human, relational aspects of the care were, whatever the clinical problem.

But how can you teach that, someone asked me?  Well, poetry has an important part to play in helping doctors make these connections. I hope to go back. Time for a Finnish edition?

If you would like to order a copy of Tools of the Trade, click here.

Category: projects