CHARLIE: Okay, I’m Charlie. I’m a junior doctor. And I’m currently working at Homerton Hospital in their emergency department. But for the sake of this, and during the first wave of COVID, I was at Newham Hospital in my first year of being a doctor. And I was a COVID HDU…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Okay, so firstly, let’s start with the triggers and stuff. So in this audio recording, so it’s about COVID, and doctors and hospitals. So there are references to death from COVID. That was my phone, I forgot to silence it. And also because of death from COVID. And because we this is happening in England, there are the reasons why lots of people here in England are dying from COVID, which is a combination of racism, disability discrimination, or ableism. And also kind of underlying health inequalities. So poverty, and economic oppression of marginalised people. So… those are the things that we’re going to be covered in this. If that’s going to be really distressing to you, maybe don’t listen, or just prepare yourself for that if you do want to continue going forward. So that’s the intro bit. After the intro, we have the hook. So if this was a track by Beyonce, or Little Mix, or you know, even Fela Kuti, if we want to go… not mainstream. So this will be the bit that that hooks you into the podcast. I should silence my phone, shouldn’t I? This is the bit that hooks you into the podcast, it’s the question, it’s the reminder. And we just have to stop and silence it. Yeah, I silence my phone. Now that was really unprofessional of me, wasn’t it? So if this was the hook, it would be the riff from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”. That was sampled by whoever sampled it. So you’re caught at this point, I’ve got you interested. And then after the hook bit, I want to take you down into reality.
[Edge of Seventeen]
THE VACUUM CLEANER: That bit was fun. Now it’s time to have your heart broken. But first, this is Charlie who is great. I think you’re gonna like her.
CHARLIE: I have this weird image, right at the start of me as this like grizzled emergency medicine consultant. Maybe I’ve got, like, a mysterious car, and, like, a cool limp. And like gathering more medical students around me and telling them about the pandemic. And… Because this is history, and I was there. And if there’s one thing that this has made me certain of, even though this job is really hard, I can’t see myself doing anything else. I have to be here. There’s so much meaning in what I do. I found a new value in it. And it was very valuable to me before. But now I’m changed from this. I think we all are. I think it’s different for everyone.
So I think it’s a different okay.
It’s hard to not become a hard person going through something like this.
And I think you have to try very hard to not become callous to it.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Yeah. Because otherwise you stop being good at your job. What you need from a health care professional is the softness and the openness…
CHARLIE: My patients deserve that.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Yeah.
CHARLIE: I deserve that.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Yeah.
CHARLIE: And I don’t want to be a hard person. This is hard times. I don’t know what okay looks like now. Is that the end?
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Charlie is wearing a dress and a green cardigan, the dress has patterns on it. I’m guessing it’s 70s. It could be 60s, I think I will go 70s. Kind of big swirly kind of… not Paisley kind of flower things going on, and great earrings. And I should probably tell you why she’s in my studio telling me these things.
Over the summer of 2020, I invited health workers who have been working during the pandemic in the London Borough of Newham, to come to my studio and have a conversation with me, that would be filmed. 47 people came from very varied disciplines, from the emergency department to the intensive care wards to respiratory, to obs. and gynae and midwifery. And also… a huge range of people became… they sat in my studio, opposite me, we wore PPE and I asked them some questions. And that was for an art project I’m making, which is called “Exposure”. They came from the London Borough of Newham because… that, if you don’t know, Newham is an area of East London. It’s where the Olympics was held in 2012. And it’s one of the poorest areas of the UK. It’s also one of the most diverse areas of the UK. There are a lot of migrants and refugees that settled there. It’s called the younger… one of the youngest populations of the UK, it also has really high health inequalities. So obviously, and perhaps predictably, COVID hit that community really hard. There was a time during… I’m guessing around early April, mid April, where it actually had the highest death rate per capita in the world, which is just fucking devastating for that community. They were hit really, really hard. So I was really interested in talking to the health workers about their experience and making sure that that was captured on camera forever, because I guess, as we all know, this is significant, and sad, and painful. And that’s how Charlie came to be sat in my studio. Why did you become a doctor?
Everyone hates this question.
CHARLIE: Do you want the long answer or the short?
THE VACUUM CLEANER: The long answer.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Five minutes later.
CHARLIE: … but the harder sciences and then trying to get in that big boys club, and I just wasn’t interested in that. And the philosophy side of things I really loved. But I didn’t want to do more than three years of it. I joke all the time. If I got all my thinking out all in one go, because it was like you can only spend so much time wondering if colours are real.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: This is why I like Charlie.
CHARLIE: A similar bout of inspiration about God and I would have become a nun. It was one of those things where I was going to do it.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Anyway, I’m not a good enough editor to condense the long version of why she became a doctor into a neat little package for a podcast, but let’s just say she became a doctor and, at the time of training to be a fully consultant level doctor, a pandemic happens. Okay, so I’m a five-year-old. Could you tell me what a virus is?
CHARLIE: You said these questions were easy. You lied.
It’s a bit like a meme on the internet. Like a really trash meme, and it just makes worse and worse copies of itself and just goes and…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: It’s Kim Kardashian.
CHARLIE: Yeah, breaks the internet. You are the Internet, Coronavirus is Kim Kardashian.
Vac hover face
That’s official now in the Wellcome collection for ever.
CHARLIE: You tricked me. This is my contribution to future generations. I am the Internet…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: And global medicine…
We’re having a good chat and we’re getting on. But as she starts to tell me about her experience of working in the London Borough of Newham and not in the hospital there, during the pandemic, it’s clear that she wants to tell me about something. And it’s this bit of her story that I am interested in. And so this is how it begins.
CHARLIE: And they didn’t even seem to deteriorate. Like they were already very sick. But I didn’t even really seem to get any worse. They just went from sick to dead. Literally minutes in front of you, they would just die.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Was, was that the most challenging experience that you had during the first wave?
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Can I ask you about that? Or would you prefer not to talk?
CHARLIE: No, I have to talk about that. I’m gonna cry though. Tissues at the ready.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Can you passe me one as well.
CHARLIE: We can have a cry together.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Do you want to take a break? Or…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Okay, let’s go.
CHARLIE: No, I want to talk about…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: He or she…
THE VACUUM CLEANER: I’m just going to interrupt you there, Charlie. Sorry. Because I feel like I need to explain to the listener what my motive is here, because I guess really, this is about what it means as an artist to have material that you can’t really make public. Because there are serious ethical and legal concerns, and also is now the time to be telling this story? And I don’t know the answer to those questions. So let’s try and find out what is possible.
CHARLIE: I go into this lady who was on a ventilator, and she was lovely. And we had a nice chat. She was really, really sweet. She’s in her 80s. And proper nana, like she was she was just really, really lovely. We talked about a garden. And I did this horrible blood tests on her and ran it and it was fine. And then after everybody came in, they said, “Oh, why did you do that? You didn’t have the data,” which I didn’t know.
I did a couple more things with her. When she needed blood test taking or things like that, over the week that she was there. We always had a nice chat. She was a lovely lady, really liked her. And… and then she’d been on the ventilator for about a week. And my consultant, one of my consultants said, at the board round, which is where you go and get together and talk about how all the patients are doing, he said, “She’s not doing very well. And she’s been on the ventilator a week and she’s getting no better.” And he said, “I think we are looking at this probably being a terminal event. This will probably kill her.” She’s already been set at ward base care, we weren’t gonna CPR or anything or send it to ICU. And he said, “Yeah, she’s probably going to die. But we’ll leave it for now. If her ventilator settings get any worse over the course of the day, then give me a call. And we can we can go, you know, sort that out.”
I get a call from the ward. And it was from a sister who is really, really brilliant. And she called me and she said she’s on 100% oxygen. And on these ventilator settings, like, she’d upped all of her ventilator settings.
And she was like, “I think it’s time.” You know, this is what they were taught. They talked about in the ward round today. She’s gotten worse. So she’s deteriorating. Okay. So I get in all the PPE, go in there to tell her that she’s going to die and have this long chat with her. And she didn’t recognise me, which really hurt, not because I was upset that she didn’t recognise me, but because it struck me how impersonal it was… On there in a fucking spacesuit holding her hand through two sets of gloves. We’ve talked before. I know who she is, and she doesn’t know who I am. I could be anybody. We’re all these faceless, nameless people in PPE. Like spacemen.
So I’m this stranger having this conversation with her. And I must say to her, “Your ventilator settings are getting worse. This is not going well. This is this isn’t working, basically.” And she sat there listening to me. She said, “I’m not going to die, am I?” I just said, “I think you are.” And the look of shock on her face.
It was just like, why am I having this conversation for the first time with you? Why did nobody else have this conversation with you? You’re 84. And you’re on a ventilator dying of this deadly virus. And I’m the one, this faceless, nameless person who you don’t recognise, going insane to actually know that you are going to die. And I know that you feel exactly the same because you’ve been on this ventilator for a week and you’re used to it now. But you are gonna die.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: Is this too much? Is the world that we are living in too much? It is to me.
I I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do. Except: stay at home.
And hold those I love close to me and tell them that I love them. And let the health workers know that: I know you’re not heroes, but I’m so proud of you for what you’re doing.
CHARLIE: Her daughter did make it. She decided to start driving and then we managed to hold her off until the morning so… she’s got to say goodbye to both her kids.
I just remember holding a hand through a glove. It just felt so wrong.
And it’s over.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: I’m really sorry that happened to you.
CHARLIE: Me too.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: It’s really sad.
CHARLIE: Yeah, it is.
THE VACUUM CLEANER: I really believe that art can help us heal. But at the moment, we’re all sick. I don’t know how much art we need to do that healing. I don’t know if we’re strong enough or brave enough. Or if we’re even good enough as artists. But I do know that the health workers are stepping up. Day after day, they’re stepping up. And so you know what? As artists we don’t really have a choice… because we all need to heal from this.