“I think Covid 19 can be compared to an earthquake, a volcano: a disaster: what can be salvaged? Are NHS staff valued enough?” Cool, Black and Exceptional Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu DBE FRCN, nurse, health care administrator, lecturer, and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at University of West London

Featured Image: When They Said 2020 Would be The Year of The Nurse They Weren’t Joking: Royston cartoon if you’d like a print contact the artist

The depletion we all feel since the avalanche of Covid19 hit Britain and expressed in Clive Myrie’s brilliant, local bulletins from the Royal London hospital is in some ways given balance and hope when we connect to the beauty and sorrow in the Kanneh-Mason’s arrangement of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Deep River.  It makes me realise how much we feel with and for each other in spite of the structured confusion of privilege and under privilege that we express through our creativities.

Picture a sea of lights at the December 2019 Pride of Britain awards, just before Covid hit, the event hosted by mathematician Carol Vordeman 

Carole, (who’d have a lot in common with the Victorian queen of statistics and data Florence Nightingale and the amazing self belief of nurse, doctress hotelier and biographer Mary Seacole from what I’ve learnt on Professor Elizabeth’s website) explained that if everyone in the room switched on their phone lights and they multiplied by thirty that it would be 25,000 lights. 

25,000 lights symbolised the number of people who’d benefitted from the care, resources, campaign, work and research of nurse, midwife, health visitor, researcher, Dean of Nursing Elizabeth Anionwu

Above left : Elizabeth Anionwu health and nursing expert and campaigner: fifty years on with friend Sue Rees and right Sue Rees and Elizabeth as newly graduated nurses at Paddington General Hospital.

Numbers help you understand the achievement but they can’t tell the story. And just as in Dickens Tale of Two Cities we’re in the best of times and the worst of times where the overuse of fragmented data without meaningful social aims and values needs to be challenged. We need data and stories, insights and experience linked to a meaningful context so we can re-find our wisdom and humanity across the whole life cycle.

In Mixed Blessings, Elizabeth Anionwu’s brilliant life story, we weren’t there, but it doesn’t matter: reading it reminds you that history is a continuing mosaic much richer than the structured social confusion of a data mosaic determination: in real life people are different, idealistic, hopeful, energetic, collaborative with incredible dreams and creativities. The importance of understanding and distributing the stories of the migrants, the refugees, the ex prisoners of war and the soldiers to the society we need to be now and in the future is the energy, the brightness, the wisdom and insight we need. 

Elizabeth’s reconstruction of how she began life as a child of two students, thirteen months before the birth of the NHS to mum Mary Furlong, the first child in her Irish family to take her love of Latin and Greek to Cambridge university and her dad, barrister in training Nigerian Lawrence Anionwu… is enthralling and gripping, showing us the view from a roller coaster of social, political and economic changes, personal insights, adventures, hard work and activism over a lifetime. 

Every moment and point in the book has meaning that you could talk for hours about: how the stigma attached to illegitimacy and race in 1947, thirteen months before the NHS was born meant Elizabeth’smum had to tangle and wrangle with the Mensa level difficulty problem of how to maintain the secret love, pride and bond she had for her beautiful baby Elizabeth Mary (and Lawrence) while plotting to move her life forward, find security so she could take her out of the Father Hudson’s nursery and Nazareth House children’s home. 

You get the sense that the very great bond and love between Mary and Elizabeth sustained them both: a powerful awareness of social justice, injustice and love that must have been very hard to communicate in words. 

Meeting her father at a time when she’s starting out in her own right made me think that London was swinging round to meet her (it was amazing how he’d been in London, there was so much in his story that was never said!).

You feel the moments that motivated her: in the Birmingham children’s home Nazareth House, meeting the nun in the white habit (a nun nurse) who brought light and humour to treatment and pain, moving to Liverpool to grandparents and the girls Technical High school, training in a diverse nursing environment at Paddington General, less than a mile from Mary Seacole’s grave, (State Registered Nurse), where she first encountered two Caribbean families with sickle cell anaemia and the lack of resources to understand and treat it: getting to know the patients even though it was frowned on: developing a Student Nurses Association, travel, hitch hiking, music of all kinds, rum and coke, fashion, (wet look boots and hat, relaxing her hair) Labour party politics (here connecting to her Fabian and Fenian grand and great grandparents as well as their english roots), caring for casualties, dying patients and their families, washing a dead body, midwifery training in Edinburgh wanting to work in a relational, humanistic way and being terribly depressed with the depersonalisation she found there, reading the ad in the staff room for an english tutor for the two children of Madame Lacroix who owned a maternity and surgical clinic in the Parisienne suburb of Vitry sur le Seine, an experience which enabled her to make new friendships, develop confidence, wear an Afro and come back to London with a sense of self, refocus and purpose. 

Ken Livingstone’s London is often slated by successive governments but during the period of the Greater London Council (1965 to 1986) the idea of understanding and delivering services and policies that would reach everyone because class, race, gender age and sexuality were considered important improved the health and wellbeing of everyone. The idea of working towards the way of life the whole community aspired were integrated into the way things were done, ironically, at a time when socially regressive forces in work, housing and policing were undoing the wider social certainties of the welfare state. 

As now, it must have been both a very scary and amazing time. In the autobiography you get a sense of someone with a real gift for community: a person with a great curiosity, interest in how things work as Elizabeth motors around on her mobylette  and mini

all the time learning and getting closer to black history, getting to know Jessica and Eric Huntley, the founders of the first UK black publishing company Bogle L’Ouverture Publications (named after Paul Bogle and Toussaint L’Overture freedom fighters in Jamaica and Haiti), seeing Angela Davis at the Keskidee Centre in December 1974 and her own: finding, meeting and building a relationship with her dad Lawrence who strangely, was living with his wife Regina, in London, like Mary Seacole’s grave, hidden in plain sight from his daughter who was to go on to develop an extraordinary campaigning nursing and health education career.

Above: The Keskidee Centre, Gifford St Islington founded by architect and activist Oscar Abrams in 1971, to be a place for black culture, right Mary Seacole’s grave at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetary Kensal Green  and above the Keskidee Centre is now the Christ Apostolic Church and the Power-Age Christian College

Through diligently joining up the instinctual dots in her life we make friends with Elizabeth: a nifty, trendy mover, moved by what she felt, moved by the opportunities around her and the chance to get involved and change things. 

What people don’t realise until they read stories by doctors, nurses, health professionals and politicians is that the health service has been contested since its inception. It’s always been an ideological struggle to provide for the national health and the private interest. To Elizabeth the NHS means security and fairness: “I love the history of the NHS, I love the battles fought to get it” 

Like Zadie Smith, Elizabeth is ‘sole author of the dictionary that defines me’. You realise that freedom for herself and others is the freedom you find in a connected and purposeful community. You learn about the kind of world we can have, direct, full of hope, humour and belief in lifelong learning. 

In the last few months we’ve seen the massively disproportionate increase in deaths of care home residents, front line workers, key workers, prisoners and, as a society realise that deaths in these jobs more truly reflect the race and class pandemic caused by the profitable gig and gang labour rentier supply chains, as well as the ageism that prevents proper planning and spending on services, support and access to society for older people. 

Consider Mary Seacole, pioneering nurse and doctress, born and brought up in Jamaica in 1805 and like the rural female midwives and medics of the British countryside, her knowledge, aspiration and vision was always marginalised, contested by the medical establishment:

Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers:

Back in the 1850’s it It must have been infuriating for Mary Seacole to have received testimonials from military men she’d treated in Jamaica, and Panama yet be held at arm’s length away from the gilded cage that surrounded Florence Nightingale, at a time when information was flowing freely around the commonwealth and empire. In fact Mary Seacole’s memoir has the witty, exciting journalistic power of Dickens Sketches by Boz

When she went to London to find a job in the Crimean campaign Mary wanted to be welcomed into what we’d now call the ‘beta model’ of the new way of nursing that Florence was pioneering, to compare, share insights and get resources and a ticket to come to the aid of the Nightingale party with a wholesome way of seeing care. 

However, although Florence had gained admission into the military and medical administration I guess that she had no control over who would be allowed through the door in the new hospital and health model she wanted to create. 

Elizabeth found Mary and Elizabeth and the story of her parents through her own journey to became a nurse, midwife, Health Visitor, Community Nurse Tutor, Phd researcher, Head of Faculty and Dean of Nursing. I think it was her desire to build something, design something from scratch, her desire to put her stamp on the way we understand personal, spiritual, social and community health that connects her story so clearly to her historical sisters. 

Elizabeth’s early nursing and midwifery experience didn’t put her off nursing or midwifery, just made her think that being Health Visitor meant she’d be autonomous, able to move around neighbourhoods, visiting people in their homes, creating a sense of care and community where she might influence health and care with ordinary people in the place they lived and worked in. She discovers the terrible injustice in the way Sickle Cell is treated. 

She says: ‘It was the late 1960’s. I was very conscious that black conditions (in society) were just not being addressed. I was visiting a mother whose son was doubled up in pain .on the sofa. She was crying her eyes out. What could she do..? I hadn’t heard of the illness…’

I couldn’t help her it really upset me because no child should suffer like that…’

Sickle Cell is a serious form of inherited anaemia that creates extreme pain. The sickle cell is a mutation that provides protection against malaria. Pain develops when sickle-shaped red blood cells block blood flow through tiny blood vessels to your chest, abdomen and joints. Pain can also occur in your bones. 

After qualifying she was given an opportunity to look at the American system, visiting New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Ann Clwyd MP (then Ann Roberts) remembers: 

Above: Labour MP and hospital care campaigner Ann Clwyd whose husband died prematurely because of failing hospital care and Ann in the early 1970s at the outset of her career. 

I remember on our first stop in New York, we were sitting on high stools in the breakfast room when this porter just fell. You thought he must have had a heart attack and as a nurse you immediately went over to him. I remember the scene very well. You tried to loosen his tie and they said: ‘Stop, don’t touch him’ I remember how surprised we all were! ‘You’ve got to first check his medical status’ They decided which ambulance to call. That gave me a shock and it certainly gave you one as well.”

Elizabeth notes Ann’s sense of outrage at the hospital care her husband received in hospital and the care home where his life ended. 

People like Mary SeacoleFlorence Nightingale and Elizabeth Anionwu are imaginative architects of how a hospital, health and caring space could be constructed. Where the service that they knew was needed wasn’t there, they DIY’d it!

Elizabeth, just like Mary and Florence, has been driven to understand and make visible the problem of Sickle Cell through a personal journey, world travel, communication, research, thinking and reflection back and forth in history. 

Understanding who Mary Seacole was and what she means to the history of medicine and nursing has been a long campaign but she now has a statue, unveiled 30th June 2016.

Above left: Albert Challen’s 1869 portrait of Crimea nurse pioneer Mary Seacole, Above right:  The Unveiling of the Mary Seacole statue 2016 Elizabeth Anionwu, nurses, ambassadors of the statue campaign and artist/designer Greg Bunbury’s tribute to Mary on posters throughout London. 

and a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:and posters across London through Greg Bunbury’s Black Outdoor Art project. 

We need to realise just how much knowledge, talent and experience has always been produced in Jamaica (and all the countries who are represented here, for example 108 nationalities in the health service, 350 different professions) how we need to keep learning about each other and encouraging the skills, knowledge and thinking of the people around us to break through: 

https://thecommonwealth.org/media/news/young-jamaican’s-invention-could-help-tackle-spread-viruses-covid-19

Like Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin SixsmithElizabeth’s autobiography introduces us to a new friend: someone searching for the truth authentic without sentiment and navigating between rocks…

Above: Middle: Elizabeth Anionwu’s autobiography Mixed Blessings From a Cambridge Union,  sandwiched between President Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father and Martin Sixsmith’s biography (originally titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee published in 2009)

Again, like Barack ObamaElizabeth first visited Nigeria in her late twenties (she was 27, he was 28 when he flew into Kenya). While waiting at the airport they both experienced the sensation of being welcomed and their father’s names being instantly recognised. Like Elizabeth’s mum, Philomena Lee became a single mum and looked after her son for three years  in  a catholic mother and baby home before the nuns arranged for him to be adopted by an American couple without her consent. Elizabeth wonders did her skin colour and the fact that her grandparents were respectably middle class prevent Nazareth House from taking that action in her own case? 

Phew if that’s true! Saved (for once by ignorance and prejudice?).

!

I’ve had a great sense of humour from an early age… but I’m still annoyed at injustices and poor care…’ A mature woman now reflecting on the impact of the Covid19 crisis because of inequalities. 

I picture her looking over the balcony across London or walking in the communal gardens of the flat she bought with the deposit her dad helped her with and I consider how the work and efforts of Elizabeth Nneka (Furlong) Anionwu have produced a new kind of currency that, slowly, slowly, slowly, is changing the way we live, work, make and value each other and our contribution.