This stimulating and thought provoking evening was presented by Poet in the City in collaboration with Medicine Unboxed.

I had not previously come across Medicine Unboxed, which ‘explores a view of medicine that exceeds the technical: one elaborated by the arts, philosophy and the imagination as much as science, and one that insists on care and human understanding as much as treatment’ ( I will certainly follow their activities from now on.

The session was chaired by Dr Sam Guglani, a clinical oncologist and curator of Medicine Unboxed. The panel consisted of poets Jo Shapcott, Jane Draycott and John Burnside, and Dame Sheila Hollins, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry of Disability.

I have thought much about the evening, both the poetry, the discussions that took place, and the questions that arose from the audience.

What impressed me most was the wide ranging and ambitious directions the discourse took. Narrative Medicine, Medical Humanities, and other such disciplines, have become much more familiar today, and I embrace them and what they do. Yet I also wonder whether discussions on poetry and medicine, or arts and the experience of illness, need to spend time outside their institutions too, within a broader context of empathy and compassion within society as a whole. Idealistically perhaps, I believe that this is the only way we can alleviate the isolation and loneliness of those who are ill, and who suddenly find themselves resident in another world.

I therefore welcomed the emphasis John Burnside placed on our compassion towards animals, as to all living creatures, which we increasingly erode.

I have been wondering whether compassion is strictly intuitive, innate, or whether it can be ‘taught’. I have also wondered whether you have to personally experience suffering in order to be compassionate, and as a corollary, to be capable of empathy.

I would have hoped not, but I am not so sure. I do believe, that to be alive is to suffer, not in any penitential sense, but the very nature of existing necessitates a suffering of sorts, to a greater or lesser extent, which of course applies to health care professionals as much as it does to everyone else. Whether this suffering is acknowledged and ‘felt’ perhaps separates the compassionate from the (apparently) non compassionate.

I enjoyed last night’s session very much at the time, and in its aftermath, there is much to reflect on, and to consider.