Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 70(2) May 2020


Health & Salvation Report 2020

Is it just our imagination, or does the Health and Salvation week get even better every year?

At any rate, each new theme throws up a new set of superb speakers, who inform, surprise and challenge us in new ways. The combination of a group of regular participants and fresh faces also always makes for friendly and stimulating conversation. (The fireside is the true centre of the course; the lecture room is just the trigger for those relaxed and creative evening discussions.)

This year’s theme was ‘Healthcare in the Public Eye’. The theme was introduced by Sr Margaret in the introductory sessions, with a meditation on a few texts from chapters 3 and 5 of St Mark’s Gospel: the healing of the man with a withered hand, of the woman with the haemorrhage and of Jairus’ daughter, and the instruction ‘not to make him known’. Jesus himself knew both the benefits and dangers of the public eye, and was concerned to protect the privacy of the sick, and to discern when information should and should not be more widely shared.

Maggie Doherty and James Abbott work for the Catholic Media Office, and Maggie is also Director of The Art of Dying Well at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Their session set the scene by showing a few videos of the astonishing skills of contemporary robots - we live in a world where a machine can order a haircut or build a house for us. How do we communicate in that world, especially with a potentially hostile media? They provided wise and experienced advice which might be summed up as Prepare Thoroughly: Listen: Stay Calm; Be Clear What You Want To Say; Remember It’s Not About Me. It struck me that this was the sort of advice a Spiritual Director might offer - the more we are master of ourselves and our emotions, the better we can listen and communicate. A session of role-play followed in which selected members of the group excelled themselves in their ‘public’ performances.

Dr Nick Gent is a man of many parts, including his role as Deputy Head of Public Health England's Emergency Response Department. He coordinates responses to public emergencies, national and international, from typhoons to ebola. He investigates the medical dimensions of high-profile incidents. He provides risk assessments and advises on strategic responses. He is also a trained lawyer, with a role in advising on medical law at a European level. His fascinating talk focused on the meaning of Public Interest and its relation to the rights of the individual. He argued that our Common Law approach, which leaves the concept relatively undefined, has benefits as well as disadvantages, but that it is important to guard against clear misunderstandings: the Public Interest is not anything the public happens to be interested in (curious about). It is a legal, rather than moral or political, concept, which offers protection to protect sub-groups within society. However, its roots are in morality, not least that of the Gospels. It is dynamic, in that risks and benefits constantly change. In recent years we have abandoned a more finely graded sense of confidentiality for a black-and-white contrast between public and secret, a significant but little-noticed development. Public Interest is one of the few society-based criteria we use for ethical judgements, and its use is pervasive: it is important that we think more carefully about it and avoid misapplications of the idea.

Dr John Ellershaw is a Professor of Palliative Medicine in Liverpool, who originally trained with Cicely Saunders. He shared with us the way in which a large team of volunteers are used in a huge variety of roles in his hospital, and how they are trained and encouraged. This led to interesting group discussions on the use of the word ‘volunteer’, which runs the risk of implying that unpaid status is more significant than the job someone is doing. Dr Ellershaw also introduced us to the stimulating ideas of Hilary Cottam, laid out in her book Radical Help. How can we enable individuals within communities to help themselves and one another in ways that will support our ailing health service and remove burdens from it?

End in mind, book coverDr Kathryn Mannix retired from her role as a Palliative Care Consultant in Newcastle in order to write With the End in Mind, now a bestseller. [see our book review here]. Her mission continues: in her talk, she showed our group, joined for her session by a number of local nurses, how each of us could help to share wisdom and information about the process of dying, in a way that will give great help and comfort to the sick and to their relatives. She also talked about her new role in supporting carers and the bereaved through an on-line community that has grown up around her website and twitter. The internet has so much potential for good, provided that one learns detachment and skill in negotiating its less pleasant manifestations.

Nurse Toni Lynch gave the final talk, drawing on her unique journey from being brought up as a child in a house in the Boarbank grounds, and starting her first job at Boarbank, under the guidance of the Sisters, at the age of 11, via spells of responsibility in Accident and Emergency and Elderly Care to the role of Deputy Chief Nurse at St Thomas’ and St Guy’s. She spoke very movingly of her mission to integrate the values she learned as a child - discipline, care, self-giving - into her vocation as a nurse, and now as the one who is able to be the voice of the workforce and the patients to the highest levels of management. Continuing to work hands on alongside her staff one day a week gives her a deep insight into what is needed on the ground.

In our concluding conversations we reflected on the rich and unexpected set of questions raised by our theme, questions which often ran through several of the talks. This year people spoke more clearly than ever of the extent of the crisis in the NHS, and recognised that fundamental change is urgent. How will this change happen? Another theme was of the need to recover the wisdom of past generations in a new form and new context: wisdom about dying, about compassion, about community, about truthfulness. We reflected on the need to build local communities and groups through horizontal networks and how these might best interact with vertical structures of authority. We spoke of the need to educate, encourage and empower members of the general public, and to learn to listen deeply to one another. ‘It’s not about Me - it’s about You and about Us,’ was one of the messages to take home.

A largish group made the most of the sunniest day for a walk around the coast to Jenny Brown’s Point, near Leighton Moss (and we popped in for a little birdwatching en route). Of course there is a good tea room there too! Social time during the week also included watching the film of The Two Popes, and we ended the week enjoying a buffet with some of the Sisters.

As usual, the group shared Mass and the prayer of the Church, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the Sisters. The final Mass, with the Community and residents, was a Mass of Healing, with the sacrament for the sick. Many thanks to Fr David for his liturgical support.

Because we would like to share these very special courses with more people, next year we are putting on a second event, aimed especially at those who find January a difficult time to get free.