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An event that changed my practice

Sue Spencer

As Senior Lecturer in Primary and Community Care I am required to teach across a range of courses: preregistration nursing, prequalifying social work, postqualifying community nursing and a Masters in Public Health. Before I joined the university over eight years ago I had been a diabetes specialist nurse for eight years, and before that a district nurse. My position requires me to engage with developments within practice and to produce scholarly articles for publication. It is a job I find immensely satisfying, if frustrating because of the lack of time. My aim as a senior lecturer is to enable practitioners to gain knowledge, skills and self-awareness that will enable them to improve their practice.
About 18 months ago I was struggling to write my PhD thesis. In an attempt to help my writing I went along to a creative writing class for academics run by Julia Darling at Newcastle University. These classes were nothing short of a revelation for me. Instead of criticism and competition there was a positively encouraging and affirming atmosphere that made it possible for me to write imaginative and even funny things. To my great surprise I found myself reading out my "piece" at the first class in front of complete strangers. From then on I have been hooked both on the creative writing and more importantly on poetry and the message that poetry can give those working in healthcare.
Since then I have continued to attend Julia's classes and also enrolled in classes on writing and health at Newcastle University. In these classes we explore the use of creative writing in healthcare and also the practicalities of offering writing classes to practitioners. We were introduced to a number of exercises that sparked the creative flame (we all have one) and also discussed how we might deliver classes and the challenges that we might face.
A couple of weeks ago I introduced the district nursing students to four of Julia's poems, and after reading them we discussed the messages that the poetry had for their practice. Instead of the rather dry and predictable discussion around the district nurse's role in palliative care, we talked about maintaining one's identity while ill; the conflicts that are encountered between patients and professionals; and also how important words are in communicating people's needs and wants at the end of life. I doubt this would have happened as easily if we hadn't studied the poems.
Julia Darling has written about how poetry can help people in times of illness in an article entitled "My joints are rusty cranes" that appeared in The Guardian.(1) Julia has also written some books of poetry that include a number of poems eloquently reflecting her experiences within healthcare while receiving treatment for breast cancer.(2-4) Her work has proved a real catalyst for changing both what I intend to write and also what I offer within my teaching role. I have always intended to be a facilitator in education rather than a teacher who stands at the front and relays all she knows. People need to find their own way of learning and continually telling people or students what to learn and how to learn it will never enable them to become self-reliant and lifelong learners.
As a result of attending creative writing classes and using poetry with the students, my teaching has changed. Having withdrawn from my PhD, I still have to balance the requirements of the courses I teach with my new mission to bring the gift of poetry to health and social care practitioners. My recent experience with the district nurses makes me realise that it is worth doing.
Poetry is now used in many healthcare settings, particularly in mental health and hospice care. I am now exploring the possibility of cofacilitating classes within primary care for  people living with long-term health needs and healthcare practitioners. I believe that it can help them and the healthcare professionals work together to enable a partnership that offers the best outcomes for them and the best quality of life.


  1. Darling J. My joints are rusty cranes. Guardian 2004 Aug 5.
  2. Darling J. Sudden collapses in public places. Lancaster: Arc Publications; 2003.
  3. Darling J. Apology for absence. Lancaster: Arc Publications; 2004.
  4. Darling J, Fuller C, editors. The poetry cure. Northumberland: Bloodaxe Publications; 2005.