North London GP Dr Jane Myat tells The College of Medicine how the things that helped nourish and restore her during her own burn-out helped her to transform a ‘corporate’ courtyard garden into a healing space for the local community…
When the Caversham Group Practice moved into their current building in 1998, principal Dr Jane Myat looked at the large disused space in the courtyard of their urban surgery and thought ‘it would be really good to do something here – maybe when I had more time…’
Unsurprisingly, the project remained ‘a nice idea’ until 2016 when big changes in her own life, including the deaths of several people close to her, one by suicide ‘challenged every certainty’, leaving her ‘burnt out’.
It was Jane’s own healing journey that proved the catalyst to create the garden.
She explains: “Certain things nourished me – being outside, gardening and tending my allotment, doing crafts and reconnecting with friends.
“Then I started thinking about our patients who didn’t have access to those things and that’s how ‘The Listening Space’ garden started.”
There was no coherent plan. The garden literally grew organically as Jane talked about it. Interest and enthusiasm suddenly swelled up, she says.
“One chilly November day in 2017, I found myself offering to cook for 80 volunteers – patients, people from our local community and members of Transition Kentish Town – as they cleared the space.
“Over the next months and years, small gardening groups turned the former wasteland into a therapeutic garden, filled with flowers, vegetables and herbs.
“People talk and listen, patients and staff sit, stroll and work around the garden, it hosts impromptu meals and celebrations, ‘crafternoons’ and even outdoor consultations.”
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The practice’s Health Connector (aka link worker), Jo Lynch, runs different groups, organises health walks, creative writing and ‘singing for breathing’ sessions.
“It’s always been a real community effort with people gifting time, effort and sometimes money,” says Jane.
“Patients who sometimes felt they had nothing to contribute have found things within themselves that have helped them flourish. Pills can be useful in some situations but this helps people in a way no pill could ever do.”
It’s not always been easy, the GP admits.
“Looking back, if I’d realized how much work and energy it would involve I might never have done it. But it’s been amazing – and changed my whole concept of medicine and health.
“Sometimes the conventional healthcare system can squeeze the joy and hope out of daily living. The Listening Space invites patients to join us in a community-based environment where they know they matter as they are. It lets people just be together.’
Now Jane and her network are getting together to plan for a long, hard winter with the reality of food and fuel poverty.
It will be hard but there will still be cake, Jane promises: “we celebrate every small step forward with a tea party.”