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Reflecting on 'Bodies': an interdisciplinary conference exploring health & healthcare

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

An earlier version of this blog post was originally published by the University of Bristol's Centre for Health, Humanities, and Science.

As the leaves change from green to brown, this blog post recalls and reviews one of the summer's main events supported by CHHS. On 26 June 2023, a collaboration between Great Western Hospitals and Medicine 360, ‘Bodies’ bought together healthcare professionals, medical students, academics and members of the public to explore interdisciplinary approaches to health and healthcare. A combination of talks, panel discussions, poetry readings, animations, and artworks provided opportunities to reflect on the relationship we as human beings have with our own bodies, other people’s bodies and the role of healthcare within this. The Bristol City Poet, Kat Lyons, wove some of her poems through the day's panels. Her vlog on the way home from the day, walking down Jamaica Street, nicely gives one view of the day's impact on non-medical professionals:

The day started with Dr Chris Luke on the importance of finding pleasure in a medical career, and the ever-present danger of burnout. Luke is an Emergency Medicine Consultant, and the author of A Life in Trauma. His examples of disasters and pleasures ranged widely in time, often being located, one way or another, around dance. The second speaker was Sabeena Pirooz, of The Sky Project, a Bristol-based charity working to raise awareness on the issues of forced marraige and honour-based violence.

Next, Dr. Ian Williams, author of The Bad Doctor and The Lady Doctor (forthcoming The Sick Doctor) introduced ‘Graphic Medicine’. This is a subject area which Williams named in creating a website: The website has become the centre of an online community devoted to using graphic art to portray different scenarios encountered in healthcare. Williams has defined graphic medicine as ‘the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare’ and sees it as providing a careful, yet powerful medium for communicating some of the issues facing clinicians, patients and the NHS. (See The Graphic Medicine Manifesto for a great introduction. This can also be borrowed via Some years ago, Williams was kind enough to start #medicineonthewalls rolling with a design for a wall on Jamaica Street; it was marvellous to welcome him back.

Kat Lyons, Duvet Days

The second half of the day opened with a panel discussion on grief by Prof. Lesel Dawson, Prof. Lucy Selman and Prof. Mark Taubert of (Talk CPR) chaired by Dr. Rachel Clarke. This discussion was inspired, in part by the ‘Good Grief Festival’ a community founded by Prof. Lucy Selman aimed at providing people experiencing grief with ‘solace and support through storytelling’. Amongst other things, one of the topics raised was 'grief hierarchies', the idea that some grief experiences are more socially acceptable than others. For example, the grief that often follows miscarriage or still birth was a topic that one of the panellists, drawing on her own lived experience, felt is sometimes associated with a diminished sense of significance, social stigma and taboo.

These themes were further amplified by artworks by Clare Clark, a Bristol-based conceptual artist whose delicate works were displayed in the Great Hall. Claire’s work aims at breaking down barriers in public discourse surrounding miscarriage and creating awareness of the unresolved pain it can involve.

Claire Clark, The Brutal Truth & Little Bodies (2023)

The significance of normalising discussions about grief, death and dying was also bought to the fore in another talk, ‘The Making of My Dead Body’. The discussion led by anatomist and PhD student, Dayna Stone alongside anatomy administrator Laura Arnold, who told the heartfelt story behind ‘My Dead Body’ a Channel 4 production about Toni Crews, a young woman who donated her body for medical research and public dissection. The talk disclosed a deep sense of connection and gratitude towards Toni, her donation, and its educational significance for medical students, scientific researchers, and members of the public.

In the final talk of the afternoon, artist and founder of ‘The Alternative Limb ProjectSophie De Oliveira Barata gave an inspiring talk about her journey from sculptor to designer of wearable art pieces. De Oliveira Barata works closely with prosthetists and a vast range of clients, including paralympic athletes, musicians, models, performing artists and veterans, to create limbs that enable people to express their individuality and feel empowered. In her talk, She told the story of a young girl whom she continuously worked with post-injury to design an age-appropriate limb reflecting her personality and creativity.

Overall, these talks provided new insight into a range of topics surrounding the body and our lived experience of it. A reoccurring theme in each seemed to be a push for acceptance of the body and of ourselves as fundamentally fallible, vulnerable beings. Considering this shared ambition, what many of the talks, performances, and exhibitions demonstrate is the crucial role the arts and humanities can play in helping people to develop new perspectives and navigate complex situations.

In the evening, 'Bodies' was fortunate to have Rachel Clarke and Henry Marsh as speakers. Distinguished in their respective fields of palliative care and neurosurgery, they are also well-known for their bestselling books: Clarke is the author of Breathtaking, Dear Life, and Your Life in My Hands; Marsh is author of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery, and And Finally: Matters of Life and Death.) They talked of their careers, the responsibilities of doctors as the 'natural attorneys of the poor', and the circumstances that brought them together to launch Hospice Ukraine. Please considering offering a donation.

Kathryn Body & John Lee, University of Bristol, 2023


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