Dan Carrier reports from the Hay Festival on Michael Rosen and Jim Down’s pandemic experiences
10 June, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
Hay-on-Wye, home to the famous book festival
MICHAEL Rosen was sitting outside the Whittington Hospital in Islington with a doctor who had helped save his life.
The poet, who spent seven weeks in intensive care last year with Covid-19, had been discharged. As they talked, he was approached by a woman who called him by his first name and said how pleased she was to see him.
Michael, who appeared this week at the Hay Festival with Intensive Care Consultant Jim Down of UCH, described how she was one of the team who had pulled him back from the brink of death – but he had no idea who she was.
Michael’s latest book, A Different Kind Of Love, offers a view from an ICU bed, as he describes how this global disaster turned into a personal medical trauma. Jim’s book, Life Support, tells the story of the last year from the view of those working in the intensive care unit at the Bloomsbury hospital.
Michael, who lives in Islington, contracted Covid-19 in March. He’d had a couple of weeks of what he thought was the flu, and seemed to briefly be improving – until he took a very bad turn.
His oxygen levels dropped, but a call to the doctors gave the advice that he should stay away from hospital as long as possible. A second opinion, on the same day, from a friend who is a medic said otherwise.
Shaking with fever, the 74-year-old was taken into the Whittington Hospital. His organs failing, he was put into a coma and his family was told he had a one in two chance of surviving.
Michael Rosen and Jim Down taking part in a video event chaired by Dr Rachel Clarke
“The NHS to me is a kind of hope of how we can be as a society,” he said.
“What is the most caring, collective thing we can give as an example of hope? And its sole principle is to save life, to be good to people. The thing created in 1948 is what we have got as a blueprint as to how human beings can behave together, to help each other for the general good. It was wonderful – to some extent – to have experienced this. I am a recipient of it, and at the same time an advocate of it.”
As Michael recovered, he began to piece together what had happened to him. He had no idea he had been in a coma.
“Emma, my wife, told me – and I just did not believe her. And then if I did, the next day I would forget,” he said.
As well as writing about this awful experience, Michael has drawn on a diary written up by those looking after him, a bedside document added to during his treatment as a record for the patient to see if they recover.
“At first I could not bare to look at it, I saw it as an unfriendly object,” he said.
It gives the reader a different angle – “instead of it being me looking down at my body,” he adds – and offered a 360 degree view.
“Reading these letters, diary entries – moved me so much,” he said.
He revealed how after 40 days in a coma, doctors were becoming increasingly worried about how unresponsive he was being. They asked Emma to help.
“I was wheeled out into the atrium at the Whittington, with views across London, in my bed with all my drips attached,” he said.
“She held my hand and played recordings of my family to me on her phone. I was not that reactive, but as I was wheeled back into the lift, I became lucid. The messages from my children and Emma was the game changer.”
For Michael, one astonishing aspect of last year was the public discourse that took place in March about measuring the value of human life.
Asked by chair Dr Rachel Clarke how he reacted to evidence given by the prime minister’s former special advisor Dominic Cummings two weeks ago at a Select Committee hearing about the “herd immunity” policy, Michael recalls phrases that chill.
“They said it would only affect old people, sick people and people with this extraordinary phrase ‘underlying health problems’ so it did not really matter,” he recalls.
“If you unpack that, it is saying if whole swathes of the population died tomorrow, it doesn’t really matter. That was the impression. Two days later a journalist in the Telegraph said from an economic point, maybe culling the elderly would be mildly beneficial. Though he has framed it from an economic point of view, the fact that he has even entertained it – it’s quite an extraordinary state of mind, to even frame that conversation.”
Jim recalled how as the illness spread across the globe, he and his colleagues braced themselves.
He said: “By the beginning of March, when I saw Italian images, it became unavoidably real.
“We had no idea of the scale we faced. There was no upper limit. It felt like the doubling of rates could go on for ever.
“When it hit, the disease proved to be more complex and unpredictable – and that was a real shock. It was more than a lung disease.”
Jim was party to the traumatic decisions that had to be made each day, of people saying goodbye to those they love via an iPad.
The work of his colleagues and how they adapted to its extraordinary demands is both an example of the brilliance of the NHS, and a frightening testament to what we still face, while Michael’s recovery is a tangible product of Jim and his colleagues strength and expertise.
• Many Different Kinds of Love: A story of life, death and the NHS. By Michael Rosen. Ebury Press, £14.99
• Life Support: Diary of an ICU doctor on the frontline of the Covid crisis. By Jim Down. Viking, £14.99
• To watch Michael and Jim with Rachel Clarke and other Hay Festival talks, go to www.hayfestival.com