Monday, 8 August 2016

I Hear A Story

I am in the middle of reading Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.  It's a series of short narratives in which neurosurgeon Henry Marsh gives insights into what it's like to operate on brains and spinal cords - on a patient's essence and function. 

I have learnt, more than anything else in my time working in the human services of social care and education, that it's important that stories told for learning from the truth of someone else's experience are listened to.  There's a power in the telling and a power in the hearing and the being heard. 

In Marsh's case, amongst the horrors of and wonders of tumours, speech gain and loss, recovery and death, he needs to tell us about the humanity of his doubt in the face of many of the decisions he has to make.  He hides neither the necessity for confidence-verging-on-arrogance required for cutting into brains with a steady hand, nor the humility and sense of inadequacy he has accumulated over a lifetime's experience of mending, curtailing - and sometimes worsening - the injuries caused by disease and accident.  He writes of the conversations, the impossible conversations, he has to have with patients and families - of the importance of being straightforward whilst not extinguishing all hope.

I'm finding it hard to put down this book, so when I woke early on Sunday, I began to read where I'd left off, heavy-eyed, the night before.  Then I remembered with irritation that I needed to get up to move my car before the traffic wardens' round began.

The morning was clear and scattered with clean sunshine, and I was suddenly glad to have been forced up and out.  There were two other people in the street - a council employee bent to the task of sweeping up after the night before, and a man walking towards me, pushing a bike.  I didn't recognise the cyclist, but as soon as I saw him, I knew he had something to tell me.

As if stepping from the other side of Marsh's pages, he began the story of how his son had been involved in an accident the day before, how it had happened, how he'd been rescued from worse, and how, even now, he was being prepared for an operation.   He told me what the doctor had explained about paralysis, how he'd had to keep it together since everyone else in the family had been so upset.  The story was so new to him, so much in need of telling now, right now, that it spilled out as if he were crying: his son's life saved, but broken in an instant.

Today, I am still thinking of the chapter of the cyclist's story - his telling it to me in the quiet, bright streets of a summer's morning, how he may need, in all weathers, to tell and retell the story of his son as part of the way in which he can try to make it into a shape that is easier to carry.


  1. Yes. And yes. Beautiful. An example of writing that makes things into shapes that are easier to carry.