A senior consultant paediatrician at St George’s Hospital in London, Serena Haywood is also a playwright and producer. As part of a series of Q&As celebrating the contributions of theatremakers during the coronavirus crisis, Haywood tells Giverny Masso how she uses playwriting to help junior doctors process some of the difficult experiences they have been through...
What roles do you do in theatre?
I’m a producer for Scratch at the Jack at London’s Brockley Jack Theatre. I’m also literary director of a theatre company called the Pensive Federation and a literary assistant at the Finborough Theatre. My local theatre is the Brockley Jack and I joined a writers’ group and started writing from there. I tend to do 10-minute pieces and I’ve also written two full-length plays, one of which was at Edinburgh in 2018. It was called Fallout and, interestingly, was looking at somebody in isolation.
What are your roles in medicine?
I’m a senior consultant paediatrician at St George’s Hospital in Tooting. I’m also a medical examiner – somebody who helps junior doctors write death certificates and talk to bereaved families. With the number of death certificates coming through, unfortunately it’s been very busy. My other role is providing support as a guardian of safe working hours. I ensure trainees get the correct pay, training and conditions. That was a job that arose after the junior doctors strike. I’m a peer supporter with the well-being service at the British Medical Association, offering doctors in crisis online counselling and I also work with the General Medical Council to assess doctors who have gotten themselves into trouble in one way or another.
What has it been like working during the Covid-19 crisis?
It’s extremely strange. The healthcare system has had to be completely reorganised. There are some bits of medicine that are astoundingly busy, and others that are eerily quiet. We’re worried, particularly in paediatrics, about why our wards are empty and what’s happened to all the children who would normally be filling them. There’s been a sense of foreboding since this started around how we carry on treating our patients, because the problems don’t go away. I’m also acutely aware of our very junior doctors, some of whom are straight out of medical school. They haven’t got the experience to put this in context yet. They’re seeing so much death and trying to do their best but there’s nothing in medical school that prepares them for this.
Do your medical and theatre skills overlap?
I do resilience training for junior doctors and healthcare workers. As part of that I offer playwriting to help people express creativity in a positive way and process some of the more tricky things they go through. I did an event in 2018 called Operation Theatre where I got people who may not have written before, including a neuroscientist, junior paediatrician and surgeon, to write 10-minute pieces, which we then put on in an evening.
Why might doctors make great writers?
Doctors and nurses are generally very funny, with the sort of black sense of humour that goes with the job. Doctors are creative writers anyway, because when you’re taking a medical history from somebody, it’s their story. Doctors are naturally interested in the way people communicate and we know that healthcare messages around the world are given by stories.
Training: MA in creative writing at City University (2018-19)
First professional role: Writer with the Pensive Federation
Serena Haywood recently announced a podcast based on stories from workers at St George’s Hospital