Across a century, writing in a diary was an effective way for nurses to capture details of time spent by their patients in a critical care ward, a military ward, a palliative care ward. I studied each of these contexts diligently to draw out similarities of language, of shared technical skill sets, of value. But each time in my mind’s eye, beyond the notes in the history books and medical journals, I always came back to one image, one fact, the essence: a nurse, sitting and gathering in close to a patient, face to face. Face to face. Close enough to observe lashes on eyes that flicker under lids, finger tips that tremble on the edges of perception, the junctures of flesh and medical equipment, nostrils and tubes, tape wrinkled on fragile skin, the perfect circularity of sensor pads on a body where nothing is regular or even. Sleep, breathing, time passing in pulse beats. In her painting of the neonate twins, Sara Awan takes us into this intense and private space occupied by patients and those who look after them. She shows us that the dark line of a tightly closed eye is as essential to notice as a tangle of tubes that rest lightly on real flesh of real arms and legs. Her subjects wear their diapers, and their yellow woollen bobble hats—they are not lost in them, not lost in the treatment technologies that provide their medical life support. Toes, lips and nostrils are formed before our eyes, out of paint, the parts becoming the sum, becoming more than the sum, becoming human. Silence, seeing, skill, humanity. And in this image, from the frenzy of paint and the intense complexity of the medical practice it represents, such unexpected beauty and warmth.
Emily Mayhew is Historian in Residence in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, where she works with the clinicians and scientists of the Centre for Blast Injury Studies. She is currently writing a history of British military casualty in the recent conflict in Afghanistan from point of wounding to cutting edge of science. Her essay "A Special Book Kept for the Purpose” Writing Patient Diaries: A Century of Skill in the Silence, from the Great War to Afghanistan and beyond, written with David McArthur, appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine