Patients provide poetic inspiration

13 November 2020

 

College Fellow Dr Glenn Colquhoun is passionate about making connections with the young people he cares for, so much so his latest collection of poetry is dedicated to them.

‘Letters to Young People’ was inspired by the patients Glenn works with at the Horowhenua Health Service, children and teenagers aged 10 – 24 who need a helping hand along the path of life.

“I find my patients and their stories amazing and needed to capture that in some way through my writing,” says Glenn.

“Because the relationship I have with them isn’t just one way - I am deeply grateful for what they have done in showing me what being a GP is all about.”

 

Glenn’s journey to becoming the doctor he is today is an interesting one because his first love wasn’t medicine, it was the English language.

Growing up as a Seventh Day Adventist in South Auckland, he always intended to become a minister.

“That didn’t work out when they decided I wasn’t really ministerial material, so I left and did an English degree,” he laughs. 

“I fell in love with language from an early age, from my experiences at church, from the time spent on site with my builder dad and his mates, listening to their jokes and banter, and from the playgrounds and streets of South Auckland where I was surrounded by lots of Pasifika and

Māori kids who often used English in new and funny ways.

“Poetry and language was all around me.”

After completing his English degree, Glenn began to wonder what was next.

“I liked studying and learning and I thought ‘well, you need to know a lot to become a doctor’, so I decided to do my medical training at Auckland Medical School,” he says. “But I found being a doctor uninspiring - the realities of the 15-minute appointment model bent me out of shape and led to deep unhappiness.

“But I hadn’t found my passion or the reason I became a doctor, until I came to the Horowhenua Youth Health Service.”

He credits the service, which he helped establish in 2011, and his patients, for giving him the impetus to break out of the ‘norm’ and create a new way of connecting.

“I am both a doctor and youth worker,” he explains. “Which means I can give my patients longer consultations, and really explore what is needed to untangle them from the knots they find themselves in.

“That might be a referral to another service, or it might just be that they need someone to walk beside them, to be a handrail for a while. The connections I have with my patients go pretty deep and I do a lot of work through text and email, just checking in with people, making sure they are ok, giving them the opportunity to ask for help, if they need it.”

He says that this age group go through some enormous transitions, physiologically, mentally and emotionally.

“There’s a lot of medicine to be done in all that, but we go a bit deeper than your average GP clinic. Our philosophy is that we are treating the soil so the tree can grow, not the tree itself,” says Glenn. “It’s social work overlapping with medicine, really.”

‘Letters to Young People’ is Glenn’s latest of several publications, which include poetry, children’s stories and anthologies. His success in his writing career include receiving the Prize in Modern Letters, being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard to study medical humanities and representing New Zealand  on the Commonwealth Poets United poetry project celebrating the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.

He says his poems are not just observations, or thoughts, or narratives, but also part of what he does as a doctor.

“The poems in ‘Letters to Young People’ let them know that they matter to someone, that the story they have to tell is an important one,” he explains. “It tells them that someone is thinking of them, that they matter.

“It might sound thin in medical terms but the simple act of being cared for and about, particularly when your mind hurts, can make all the difference in the world.”

His favourite poem in the collection is called ‘One Minute and 27 seconds’, inspired by a young lady who is dealing with several things in her life at the moment.

“When Apollo 13 reentered the earth’s atmosphere, they didn’t know if it was going to burn up or not,” he says. “There was a period of radio silence where everyone held their breath to hear the astronaut’s voices saying they were ok, that they had survived. That radio silence lasted one minute and 27 seconds longer than they were expecting.

“The poem is saying that we are holding our breath for this young woman, that we are waiting for her voice to tell us that she is ok, that she has got through the challenges she is facing.”

‘Letters to Young People’ is published by OldKing Press and available through Glenn’s website.