The end of this month (April 2021) sees the publication of ‘A Matter of Life And Death’, a book I worked on with palliative care nurse Kelly Critcher. It’s a hard-hitting memoir of a nursing career spent at the sharp end of the NHS, not least during the past 12 months of the Covid pandemic.
Kelly first contacted me in early January 2020, explaining that over her career as a nurse working in a busy London hospital she’d often written down stories about incidents, patients and colleagues that had struck her as interesting and memorable.
“I wonder whether you think my stories could be used for a book,” she wrote, “as I often come out of patient encounters feeling amazed, shocked, privileged, drained and feel it is a waste not to capture them!”
Something about that sentence captured my imagination. With just a few words she seemed to sum up everything hard-working nurses probably feel every day of their lives; a whole range of highs and lows in the space of a single shift. Although we hadn’t met or even spoken, there was something about the tone of Kelly’s message which made me think she’d be good to work with. I’ve been a ghostwriter for 15 years and often you know when something just feels ‘right’.
I asked for more details and she sent a few paragraphs straight away. A good sign. So I contacted a couple of publishers I know, just to test the waters. The response was somewhat lukewarm – “There are a few of these stories out there”, “Didn’t a consultant do something like this a couple of years ago?”. No-one was saying no but, crucially, neither were they saying yes. Meanwhile, in the Chinese city of Wuhan, trouble was starting to brew…..
Fast forward to early April 2020. Kelly contacted me again, saying that her hospital was rapidly filling with Covid patients. If she kept a diary of the unfolding pandemic, might publishers be interested this time? I contacted an editor at Bonnier Books and, after not much to-ing and fro-ing, we signed a book deal with them. And I still hadn’t met her!
Because of restrictions on movement and meeting up, Kelly and I talked through the initial parts of her story on the phone and via Zoom. For me it was a new way of working and while it didn’t quite match face-to-face interviewing, it wasn’t a poor substitute either. We worked this way for a while, before restrictions were eased and we were able to finally meet up.
All the time we were talking, the workload of Kelly and her colleagues was increasing daily. She and her team were liaising with the families of patients seriously ill with Covid, and volunteering for shifts in HDU and ITU. For me, this was less of a book project and more of a journalistic piece; reporting on-the-spot through the eyes of someone really in the thick of it. Kelly was keen for me to hear the voices of her colleagues also on the frontline, so I went to the hospital one day to meet and interview them. Their accounts were so true and so moving that we decided to include them as standalone interviews towards the end of Kelly’s story.
As a record of what’s gone on in the world over the past 12 months, plus the story of someone who puts caring for others ahead of pretty much everything else, Kelly’s book is honest, clear-minded and forthright. My first instincts were right – she was a great person to work with and, along with all her colleagues, a credit to the NHS during a time when it was practically holding the country together – and still is.
‘A Matter of Life And Death – Courage, compassion and the fight against coronavirus,’ by Kelly Critcher, is published by Bonnier on April 29, 2021.