On 26 September we launched Fortitude, our new exhibition which shares the experiences of healthcare professionals who worked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to our January 2021 online survey, consultants, GPs, physician associates, nurses and trainee doctors from over 20 medical specialties donated objects, images, stories and oral histories to our ongoing COVID collecting project. Through Fortitude we are able to share these stories with you, with the consent and collaboration of our survey respondents.
The stories on display are challenging to read and hear. As museum professionals, not medics, the task of communicating these stories, which contain powerful human emotions and experiences, was a bit overwhelming – how could we possibly understand and do justice to what our healthcare professionals have been through? But then I came across this quote from one of our survey responses:
‘I hope that the sharing of our experiences can help people to glean some further understanding and show some greater compassion for all those that have toiled, sacrificed and suffered in the last few years … Though it may be difficult and they may want to turn away, I hope they don’t so we can all build a deeper understanding of what so many like me have experienced in the healthcare profession.’
This quote basically told me what to do, which was actually very simple: take the time to read and listen to the stories, don’t mess with them, alter them or ‘interpret’ them, and share them – as many and as widely as possible.
While working through the overwhelming number of testimonies, objects and images we received, common threads began to appear, and these informed the themes of the exhibition: the reassurance from teamwork, the adaptability of staff, the issues surrounding PPE, the widespread and varied emotional toll, the losses healthcare professionals suffered, the hope offered by treatments and the vaccine, and the ways organisations and individuals looked after their own wellbeing.
This testimony really encapsulates so many of the themes and the emotions that the wider exhibition covers. It relates to a crocheted coronavirus made by a respiratory and internal medicine consultant in London:
‘I poured my anger towards the virus into crocheting, and then put it up in my office, and encouraged my colleagues to come and punch it if they were having a day where they were particularly annoyed about COVID because it ruined our lives temporarily and ruined lots of people’s lives forever.’
Humour, resourcefulness, adaptability, the imaginative ways that people coped, the support given to colleagues, the anger and frustration, and the recognition of the reality and devastation caused by the virus – these are reflected so many times across the survey responses.
As I read through the responses – which I did, many times – I began to understand that there is an alternative narrative to the pandemic, felt by the healthcare workers who shared their experiences with us. It is an unfamiliar, private narrative that is a huge contrast to the public narrative that people like me followed during the pandemic – the news stories about pot banging, social distancing and the outcry over the restrictions of personal freedoms, the stockpiling and mask-wearing, and the success of the vaccination programme, among others. It has been an extraordinary privilege to learn about this other narrative, and to have the opportunity to really understand what it was like.
I was particularly struck by this plea from a junior doctor in Scotland:
‘I hope that we are listened to after this ends. Not called heroes or angels or clapped for or given badges or medals, listened to.’
My hope is that this exhibition will show that we are listening. We have read, looked at and listened to every single one of the survey contributions, many times over. Over the past year of the exhibition’s development I have sighed, cringed in disbelief, recoiled in horror and cried while listening. I have also smiled, felt relief, pride and satisfaction, and I have even laughed. Our healthcare professionals have shared such a difficult part of their lives so honestly – their fears and anger, their vulnerabilities and frustrations, their joy and moments of hope – and in return they asked for their experiences to be known and for their concerns to be heard. I hope that the exhibition has managed to achieve this because I really believe that it's the very least we could do.
Sarah Backhouse, exhibitions officer