Thursday, December 9

Literature sneaks into the first line of defense against the coronavirus

That literature could be therapeutic never made as much sense as in Mexico in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In October 2020, some thirty health workers participated in a poetry and chronicle workshop, with the aim of putting their work and personal experience into the texts during the worst moments of the pandemic. Health personnel of all kinds, from nursing to psychiatry through social workers, were contacted to be part of the project by the promoters of the initiative, the Directorate of Literature and Promotion of Reading of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This fall, a year later, the result sees the light: First line, chronicles and poems written by health personnel, a book that compiles some of the works that emerged from the sessions.


The book, which was presented by videoconference on August 26, has just come off the press. It will be free and in a while it can be downloaded in PDF from the UNAM website, since the objective is to be able to disseminate the experiences of this group of health workers as much as possible. The original idea was to create a space through literature in which health personnel could exchange their stories, feelings and impressions. A group of equals that served as therapy and helped reflect the enormous difficulties involved in dealing, on the “front line”, with covid-19. The project was divided into two workshops, one on chronicles and the other on poetry, where the participants signed up based on their concerns. The sessions, between five and ten depending on the modality, were carried out by video call to prevent risky contacts.

In addition to being a resident at the Fray Bernardino Psychiatric Hospital, Orlando Mondragón, 28, is an award-winning author. When last year he was called to lead the poetry workshop, he didn’t think twice: “It was very exciting. It was the case that some doctors were in training, and I remember the case of a resident doctor who had to take a session from the hospital. It was very impressive to see her wearing her mask and protective gear while discussing literature ”.

One of the illustrations from the book 'First line, chronicles and poems written by health personnel'.
One of the illustrations from the book ‘First line, chronicles and poems written by health personnel’.Jimena Estíbaliz

Mondragón says that his role has been more of a facilitator than a teacher: “I sensed that almost none of them had had literary training, so I gave them rhetorical tools, recommended readings from which they could start.” Afterwards, the participants brought their own texts, which they all read, criticized and worked on.

Attendees could contribute poems of any kind, but in the end those selected for the book were those that reflect their experience in hospitals during the pandemic. “The title wants to show that the participants were the first line of attention against the coronavirus, and also that it was the first line they wrote because they had never written literary texts before,” says Mondragón.

As a child, Citlali Ramos, 30, dreamed of experiencing a historical episode. And with the coronavirus, while he was working as a resident at the Regional General Hospital of Querétaro, he saw his wish fulfilled, although it was not how he imagined it: “When it really touches you, you don’t know how to adapt.” Remember the adrenaline. The risk of the situation – he got infected. One day he found out about the workshop from a post on social networks and decided to sign up. For her it had something of a healer: “It is a way of self-knowledge and of developing empathy with others without the need to live the pain of the other.” In his poems he spoke about the discomfort and stress of work during the toughest days of the pandemic. A year later, he continues writing.

One of the pages of the book 'First line, chronicles and poems written by health personnel'.
One of the pages of the book ‘First line, chronicles and poems written by health personnel’.Jimena Estíbaliz

Miguel Otero, 40, a psychiatrist in centers of the Mexican Social Security Institute and Sedena, is the same as Ramos. Since he did the workshop, he has not stopped writing poetry: “There were ideas that remained in the inkwell and that somehow I have tried to continue developing.” For him, working during the pandemic was “a complex and at times dramatic experience, but also very inspiring due to the work of colleagues, patients and family members.” That is why he remembers the sessions as an enriching experience: “I am not exaggerating when I say that it was something therapeutic. It was not only a literary space, it was also cathartic and reflective, which helped to share our experiences, which were very difficult due to the type of dynamics in the hospital ”.

Leonardo Tarifeño, a cultural journalist and author of two books, already had experience in leading literary workshops with people who had never written before. That is why he accepted the role of guide in the chronicle sessions. His personal experience with the attendees was different from that of Mondragón or Otero: “For me, more than cathartic, it was an apprenticeship. They had the intention of making known the realities that they had lived, their enthusiasm was placed in the fact of communicating rather than in getting rid of the weight they brought. It was like attending a clandestine newscast, they didn’t even know what had happened to the others. Many of the nurses were girls who had no previous experience, or were volunteers, watching people die every day with a training express in which not even they trusted. Even so, we did not want it to be an account of sadness, we wanted it to have a literary dimension ”.

Carrying out the project was a joint effort between the Directorate of Literature and the Promotion of Reading (DLFL) and the Faculty of Medicine of the UNAM, the National School of Nursing, the Faculty of Higher Studies Iztacala and the National School of Social Work, as Anel Pérez, the director of DLFL, points out. She considers that the stories of the health workers had to be told: “The book is important because it humanizes the voice of the health personnel, and reminds us that the coronavirus caused the relationship between doctor and patient to change and become from person to person ”. It places special emphasis on highlighting the work of the nursing and social work staff, as well as that of the doctor or psychiatrist: “During the pandemic, direct treatment with the patient has been above all that of the nurse.”

The collected stories oscillate between anxiety and pain, effort and frustration, but also illusion and hope. The book, as Tarifeño explains, tries to get away from the common places, avoid that widespread idea that placed doctors as heroes, stick to a more human and realistic perspective, and manage to transmit the pandemic seen from their eyes. Testimonials that are written proof that ink can sometimes survive disease.

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