BY LAILA SUMPTON
Whilst wheeling my creative writing trolley filled with notebooks, postcards and coloured pens around the renal ward, I caused a fair amount of confusion. Patients asked whether I was a psychologist, a therapist or a teacher, and were surprised when I said I was a poet!
Anyone who has spent time in hospital either as a patient or visitor will remember a numb, dis-empowering and sometimes intimidating atmosphere where time drags. Helping patients to escape this through writing is both challenging and hugely rewarding. Writing can distract from pain and reinforce resilience. Your workshops could inspire and empower learners to later work through their thoughts on paper and help them improve their confidence and self-expression.
Spread the Word specialises in taking writing to those with limited access and together we delivered creative writing workshops in the pediatric ward at the Royal London Hospital and for dialysis patients at St Georges Hospital. Two very different groups of learners, but I soon found that my approaches were similar and I am going to share some practical, creative and emotional tips.
Having a positive initial conversation with learners is crucial, as well as having a calm, kind and encouraging manner. I found that building up trust and rapport took longer with adults, and worked with an average of four learners over three hours at St Georges Hospital- as it would take a good 20 minutes to get conversations going. You can use this time to listen and observe their mood, pain levels, and alertness as well as finding out about their interests, language ability and attitude towards reading and writing- so that you can adjust your workshop plan accordingly.
Getting to know the hospital staff is important and another way to learn about learning needs. Be prepared to evaluate your work and the learners’ responses, and keep notes during and after each session. Ensuring there is time for debrief sessions with hospital staff is crucial, ward psychologists, doctors and nurses may ask you for more information on the impact of your sessions.
Before starting work you will be asked about whether you have any health concerns, if you are unwell during the project, even with a slight cold, it is better to cancel your session. Some patients will have very low immune systems, and if yours is low as well then there could be risks on both sides. You will normally use hand sanitizer in-between all learners, and in isolation wards you may need to wear masks, gowns and shoe covers and disinfect all resources in-between learners, so laminate paper and use plastic pens. You may also need a NHS DBS check, which is different from an enhanced DBS check, so be prepared to leave extra time for this.
Finally, Learners often want to know how they can continue writing, so have signposting information about workshops and performances.
Be prepared for learners of different ages and abilities- at the Royal London Hospital I would need resources for ages 4-17, and would only know who I was working with on the day. According to hospital teaching staff, children drop several key stages whilst in hospital- it is good to make sure your exercises are as straight forward and accessible as possible.
Using engaging pictures to gain the interest and attention at the start of the workshop always worked well, they helped transport us to the theme and spark off ideas and memories. Using props that help stimulate the senses and illustrate stories can really help bring your work to life, visit Jo Grace’s site for ideas. Adults were more hesitant and shy about using fantasy and their imaginations, so I tended to focus on their own life stories, and only use some of the more surreal story telling activities with a few of them.
In a hospital setting you need to be even more learner driven, rather than task driven compared to other environments. This can raise the confidence of the learner for the next time an artist is working in the hospital. Very often you’ll be scribing for patients who are unable to write. I needed to give a lot more support to learners to help them generate ideas- asking open questions to help them describe scenes, or giving more specific options to choose between for those who found that harder. Providing a word bank for children helped, as well as miming and acting out descriptions so that they could find the words themselves!
Many patients do not have the chance to speak with each other, so see if there is a way for patients to share work through a blog or display board this can help more share in the creativity.
Be well rested, well within yourself and if you have had a negative experience in a hospital then ask yourself if this will affect your work. Whilst I was working with learners they would be in various situations: having dressings changed, on drips, partially paralysed, experiencing an increase in pain, drowsy from medication, on oxygen support, having blood transfusions or receiving injections. At any point the workshop could be stopped due to medical needs. Think about if this is the best environment for your skills, and if you have coping mechanisms.
Writing can allow learners the space to express concerns, and whilst this should not be your intention it can come out through conversation and exercises. Know the reporting procedures, take enough information, but do not ask too many questions and always let learners know you are sharing their concerns. The boundaries between facilitator and therapist can blur, and whilst you may want to offer help or advice it is always best to show compassion but then refer all details to staff. Hospital staff have years of experience and training on managing the pressures of life on the wards, as a visiting writer you should make sure you have the right support.
For more information on the practice of using writing within health settings and for wellbeing visit: