A poetic license to practice (with thanks to Jenny Joseph)

“Health Warning” by Deborah Kirklin

When I am a patient I will rarely take my medications

But will always want my script instantly filled.

And I shall spend hours reading all the health advice the Daily Mail has to offer

And be sure to share it with my doctor, in detail and backed up by internet references.

I shall read all the magazines about how to be a healthy elder

And ignore all the advice I find

Because I’ve already followed enough protocols for any one lifetime.

I shall go out without a phone to hand or a car to come when called

And learn to be cared for

And demand it as a right.


You can tell people about your aches and pains

And can stay home when you’re sick

Or can admit that other people’s verrucas and corns

Are of less than passing interest.


But now we must have clothes that make us look at least reasonably respectable

And enter correct read codes and not swear at patients

And set a good example to the trainees.

We must have consultants to our lunchtime meetings and read the BMJ.


But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I’m ill, and start to be the one who is cared for.

If you don’t already know it, “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, is a humorous, defiant, and provocative poem guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of young and old. In this brief and delightful offering Joseph fantasises about a time when age will free her from the many social obligations and constraints that characterise middle age.

Of course not everything about old age is a cause for celebration, with ill-health one of a number of things that can impose new and unwelcome constraints, just at a time when keenly anticipated opportunities seem just within grasp. Hence perhaps  Joseph’s gentle reminder to readers that it’s never to early to seize whatever small pleasures life has to offer, or as she puts it “to practice a little now”. When you’re young it can be difficult to imagine being old.  Likewise, when you’re fit and healthy, it can be hard to imagine how you will respond to the changes and challenges that ill health will bring.

One of the things medical humanities educators do is try to find creative ways of helping health professionals to  do just that, with the focus usually being on the emotional and social consequences of illness. But there’s another side to being vulnerable, whether through ill-health, age or for some other reason, that doctors would do well to try and understand. Something to do with the desire of a (sometimes) older and (maybe) physically or mentally less well person to regain some control of their lives, that can be overlooked by the undoubtedly important focus of medical humanities educators on serious and life-threatening illness.

So I thought I’d share with you one of my own ideas for helping anyone interested to reflect on these issues. Although it involves writing, and is inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, no poetic skill is required, just a sense of humor and a touch of humility. You might like to try it for yourself, or perhaps as a group if you work with others in a team. Or perhaps you’re not medical but have strayed onto this blog but nevertheless fancy the idea of practicing- Jenny Joseph style- so that you too will, with time, regain some control of your life.

In case none of this makes sense I’ve included my own “Warning” poem at the beginning of this blog and step by step instructions on how to write your own warning to the world. Plus there’s a link to Jenny Joseph’s poem (see below).

And once you’ve written why not share your poems with others by posting them on this blog.

Step one: read and enjoy Jenny Joseph’s poem http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/warning/

Step two: adapt it to be your own warning by substituting the words “When I am a patient” for Joseph’s own “When I am an old woman” and be sure to end the last part of the poem with “But maybe I ought to practice a little now?”

Step three: finish the poem by keeping to the original structure of Joseph’s poem as little or as much as you wish.

Step four: make of the poem and do with it what you will.

Step five: get back to the job in hand knowing you have a plan (of sorts) for when it’s your turn to be cared for and (hopefully) some good humored insights into what it’s like to be a patient.

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