3rd posting in my Writing with illness and disability series

Hello, Kathryn at this time of medical crisis in the UK, I am interested to see that you have been both a hospice nurse and a patient of cancer yourself.

1) Can you talk me through your nurse training and how you got into hospice nursing?

Nursing was something I fell into. On leaving school, unsure what to do and after a brief foray into other things – best drawn a veil over – an opportunity presented to train as an SRN. The appeal was a training course with a recognised qualification at the end. So, three years after taking up a student placement at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, I was launched into the world as a fully-fledged State Registered Nurse. Even then, despite enjoying the patient contact, I did not picture a career in nursing. My plan was to qualify and review options.

However, life happens – on sitting my Finals, I was pregnant with my first child. Fast forward several months: money was tight (to say the least) and I needed a job. Night nursing was the obvious solution, leaving hubby in charge of child-care while I worked. Initially, I approached the RD&E, my training hospital – who were happy to take me, but unable to offer ‘set nights,’ having moved to a flexible staff rota. Unfortunately, set nights were a must. So, I explored other options and applied for what sounded ideal – a staff nurse post, weekend night duty, at the Exeter Nuffield Hospital. Pleased to be offered the position, I accepted, initially a little nervous (the private sector was, after all, unknown territory, not where I’d expected to be at all) – and later valued the insights gained into both the NHS and private sector. I have fond memories of a supportive, close knit team of night staff, plus the benefit of a wealth of experience. Twelve years and two more children later, I was still there.

Around that time, my mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Her disease was aggressive and treatment palliative, not curative. My focus on her, I left work for a period. Later, picking up the threads of life, a stint of agency nursing followed. Not for me, I found, as I disliked the lack of continuity. Feeling I’d been out of acute nursing too long to slot back into a hospital setting, I took a post as Night Sister in a local Nursing Home, again staying several years longer than first intended. During this period, the venue for one of the up-date courses qualified staff attend was the – still relatively new – Day Care Unit of Hospice care, the local hospice. This was my first time over the threshold, my first real clue as to what a referral to hospice could offer. All that I can say is it was a revelation, such a feeling of calm and peacefulness in the building! I felt sad because my Mum would have benefitted greatly from the input of hospice, especially the day care arm of the service, had this been available to her. I left wanting to return and find out more in the future.

Along the way, I also trained as a Humanistic Counsellor – and loved it. Human interactions are fascinating. On reaching practitioner level, for several years I volunteered one day a week for a local charity that offered high quality counselling at affordable prices. One day, scanning the local newspaper, a job advert jumped out. Hospice care was looking for a staff nurse with a counselling background, the post based in their Day Care Unit. I felt like I’d found my dream job!

2) Did it feel strange when you were diagnosed with cancer to find yourself in the position of your patients?

I’ve never felt it was ‘us and them.’ I’ve always been aware how easily the boundary between nurse and patient could be crossed. So, in that sense, no, it didn’t feel strange. However, it did feel scary – very! The world tilts on its axis when you’re sitting in front of a doctor and hear the word cancer – and, in my case, told to prepare for major surgery. (In 2009 I had a radical nephrectomy to remove a renal tumour). Being on the receiving end of care, even the best of care, is not a pleasant place to find oneself. Likewise, not knowing which way the dice is going to fall.

Five months later, lucky enough to have had a ‘good surgical outcome,’ as they say, I returned to hospice nursing. Hopefully, I have always cared for people empathically – though only those on the receiving on of me would be able to answer that! The difference now was that I knew exactly what waiting for the latest scan report or blood test result felt like. I’ve known the shiver of fear that never quite leaves. So, I would say that my lived experience gave me a greater depth of understanding from the patient’s perspective.

3) Why did you make the switch from nurse to writer of medical romances?

Really, there was no switch to make. From as far back as I remember, I’ve been a scribbler of stories. Though I stumbled on the medical romance genre years ago – one of the night sisters I worked with used to read them and I took a peep – it was a while before the idea dawned to try and write one myself. Then it was a case of let’s see if I can. Happily, it seems yes! I completed my first published novel, ‘Making the Difference’ a year before retirement.

Primarily, I am a romantic novelist, crafting stories with a medical backdrop. To date, both my published novels have a hospice setting. My hope is that this will help promote better understanding of palliative care, a specialty I am passionate about. Good palliative care really does make the difference.

4) How do you think your nursing experience feeds into your writing?

My nursing experience has been invaluable. Treatments change, of course. What was standard procedure yesterday is not necessarily so today. I still need to check out facts, ensure details are correct at the time of writing. Hats off here to friends and colleagues who are still practising and let me quiz them! However, human anatomy doesn’t change; signs and symptoms remain the same.

5) Are you a member of the RNA like Rosy Smith? If so, how has the organisation helped you?

Delighted to say that yes, I am a member of the RNA, albeit a very new member. I love the connection with other writers and the sense of community.

6) Describe your favourite books and how you were led into writing i.e. your influences   

As a child my favourite author was Enid Blyton. I loved the ‘Famous Five’ series. I used to hanker after a dog like Timmy – and pen my own adventure stories to while away the hours on rainy afternoons! At school, the only thing I excelled at was English, regularly coming top for essay writing. Plus, I recall winning a few inter-school short story competitions. My parents were both avid readers; books were always around the house. It felt natural to pick one up and turn the pages.

Another memory surfaces: of having my hair washed, hating it, and only agreeing to co-operate if my Mum would make up a story whilst she did it! I can still recall snatches of her serial about a little girl called Peggy. My pen name, Kathryn Haydon, is a nod to my Mum – the Haydon part, at least. How thrilled she would have been to see me in print!

As a shy teenager, I retreated into books, often something by Victoria Holt, or her alter ego, Jean Plaidy. I still love historical fiction. ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by Philippa Gregory is among my favourites; I’m fascinated by the Tudor period, although the thought of being ill in those days does make me shudder!

I was introduced to the time-slip genre by a friend, who leant me ‘Midnight is a Lonely Place’ by Barbara Erskine. Now I devour Barbara’s books and can’t wait for her next one. In a different vein, I enjoy family sagas, especially the gentle, wonderfully descriptive writing of Marcia Willett and the skilful way she draws character.

Do I read medical romance, too? You bet – after all, I write it! Also, I am a great fan of Dr Max Pemberton: ‘Trust Me, I’m a (Junior) Doctor’ and Adam Kay: ‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor.’ Medics at the sharp end, who write from the heart and tell it like it is – sometimes funny, often gritty, always emotive.

Ditto, Jennifer Worth’s excellent ‘Call the Midwife’ series. In many ways, birth and death mirror each other. Entries and exits; we come in on a breath and go out on a breath. These days, no one questions the striving for a good birth experience. The seminal work of people like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Dame Cicely Saunders led the way for equal attention to be paid to the dying process – pioneers for good palliative care and the hospice movement. Perhaps fitting for a romantic novelist, I hold dear a quote of Dame Cicely’s: ‘Love is really the only thing we can possess, keep with us and take with us.’

7) How did you get published? What helped you? An agent or direct publisher contact?

For me, it was direct publisher contact. On completing my first novel, ‘Making the Difference’ I was debating the next step while thumbing through the latest issue of my Writing Magazine. Coming across a piece by another subscriber, charting her journey to publication and mentioning Mezzanotte, I decided to find out more. Having done that, I wrote a cover letter, forwarded three chapters and a synopsis, and waited. Then came the joyful moment when a request came back for the complete manuscript! A further wait until – – – oh, the dizzy excitement – – – I heard that my publisher liked it!! Some months and several edits later, I received a publishing contract. Thank you, Bettina!

8) Have you got any writing tips to share?

Don’t procrastinate. If you want to write – write!

Discipline is key: write every day if you can. Don’t wait for the muse to strike.

Writing is a solitary pursuit: seek support from other writers. Find your tribe.

Don’t forget to have regular breaks: take a walk, change the energies.

Above all, believe in yourself.

9) Where do you see your writing going in the future?

I am close to finishing my third romance, ‘Home for Keeps’ – again with a medical backdrop, though this time the setting is a GP Practice – and have ideas aplenty for more. I thoroughly enjoy writing these novels, and it’s wonderful when I hear from readers who have enjoyed them, too. My storylines are emotive, set in the West Country, with characters that will tug at your heart strings – but always, always happy endings. In this uncertain world, I want my readers to feel that my books wrap around them like a warm embrace.

‘Prognosis Guarded’ is the title of my latest novel. Like ‘Making the Difference,’ it is available via Amazon in both print & eBook format. Link below if you would like a sneaky peep.

10) Is there anything else you’d like to add e.g. your writing day, where you write etc?

10) Is there anything else you’d like to add e.g. your writing day, where you write etc?

I am a lark, not an owl. Early morning is my best time, a mug of tea at my elbow, sitting at the table with my laptop, listening to birdsong. Radio Devon might be playing softly in the background. This is where I start off, though I am lucky enough to have a garden writing room. I tend to gravitate there in the latter part of the day once the sun has warmed it – and feel very Roald Dhal-ish! The benefit of a designated writing space is that there are less distractions, fewer opportunities to be side tracked. If I don’t see the ironing piling up, I don’t feel compelled to tackle it. However, writing fits around my life, rather than my life around writing. These days, though I live in glorious Devon, I travel regularly to London or Kent on grandparent duty. The beauty of writing is that it is portable, laptops, too.

Thank you Kathryn for sharing your writing and health journey with us. Your medical romances look very enticing!

About journojohnson

I qualified as a journalist in 2002 and after a period working as a freelance for Gloucester Media writing advertorials, interviews, articles and press releases I have gone on to write for lots of magazines and newspapers, both local and national. I write regularly for the Writers and Readers magazine but have also written for CPO's Inspire, the New Writer, Classic Ford, and Take a Break's My Favourite Recipes among many others. I published my first full-length historical novel. Waireka in 2018 and my romantic novella, Alpha Male in 2016. Both can be found on Amazon. Please follow the links on my book page.
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