I migrated to the UK at sixteen when my mother – a nurse in the National Health Service – brought the whole family from the Philippines. If Jane Austen’s ‘truth universally acknowledged’ is that a rich man must want a wife, mine was that I must be a nurse like my mother, earning British pounds, and eventually carry the load of my family. My story is a typical migrant story: a young woman from a third-world country, entering the ‘land of opportunities’ where snow falls like a blessing and people speak as posh as Harry Potter.

At seventeen, I became one of the first staff members of the newly opened Primark in Wolverhampton, standing at the till for eight hours, with varicose veins inflaming beneath my numb legs. A year later, instead of celebrating my ‘18th debut party’ like other Filipinas in ball gowns receiving roses and cotillion dances, I scurried from Birmingham New Street, rain spitting on my face, to my new job as a kitchen staff member at a conveyor-belt restaurant. There, I performed my ceremony: meticulously laying strips of raw salmon, avocado, and a squirt of Kewpie mayo onto a bed of sushi rice on nori, rolling it all into a maki roll.

At nineteen, I began my career in caring for the elderly in nursing homes, where I found myself vacuuming carpets, scrubbing stained toilet floors, and, on occasions, intercepting a resident’s stream mid-air with a urinal bottle, all to save their bed sheets from an unintentional drenching. Around the same time, I enrolled in a Nursing course at our local university. It was a clever move, I’d tell myself: the tuition was free, and the government provided Nursing students with bursaries. Who would want to borrow thousands of pounds from the bank for an unconfirmed job in the end? At least in Nursing, I knew I would always be secure. ‘Nurses will always be needed,’ my grandmother used to say. ‘There will always be sick and wounded.’ If only my grandmother could see now – how proud she would be. But of course, she died in the Philippines years ago, as we were unable to sustain her dialysis treatment.

One of my very first jobs was as a renal dialysis nurse. I will never forget a patient whom I cared for. After his dialysis session, he always asked for two vials of heparin to lock his catheter – even if one was enough. I enjoyed the stories he shared with me as I alcohol-wiped the lumen, injected the heparin, and screwed his catheter closed. He used to tell me about his work at a railway in Singapore, at an irrigation plant in Thailand, and a mine in Malaysia.

‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘I can see the dead excavators still digging; still sweating, still resting as if they were alive.’ When his wife died, he would tell me how he would still see her at the corner of the room or find her silhouette in the window of a speeding train. He said, ‘All the people we meet will always leave a bit of themselves behind.’

Soon, I realised that my job brought me to uncharted, painful places. I found myself scribbling verses that reflected the rawness of human experience – the pain, the endurance, the fleeting moments of joy. Through  poetry, I found a means of making sense of the chaos that often surrounds my work. Nurses and poets are similar: we build the context of our world and who we are through our experiences, and pain is often the catalyst.

On the back of my handover notes where my patients’ details, presentations, and plans were printed, I scribbled lines which, I’d later find, sounded like poetry. I learned to trust empathy as I delved deeper into my clinical and creative work. Nursing was not just about treating my patients’ physical ailments; it was about truly understanding their pain, their fears, and their hopes, and I guess poets do that too. No matter how many times I wash my skin at the end of each shift, I will never get rid of the images I witnessed at work.  Everyone I met always left a bit of themselves behind. Their voices would never be drowned out by the warm deluge of my shower.

Patientiem comes from Latin, meaning to endure. In my world, both the patients and the carers endure. Similarly, poets must endure – rejections, periods of writer’s block, revisions, and self-doubt. Patience is needed when exploring ideas, refining a word or a line, and conveying emotions effectively. In Nursing, I also
came to understand the importance of ‘communicating clearly’, beyond mere verbal exchange. Effective communication involves not only words but also an understanding of non-verbal cues and emotions, and – sometimes – of the ‘aura in the room.’
I learned to pay attention to every wince, moan, or quiet smile.
I learned to communicate with my patients without uttering a word.
I learned when to extend my hand to a young woman on a gurney so she could squeeze me as hard as she wanted as the probe was pushed into her.
I learned to keep silent but stay beside a young father when the consultant revealed that his lung cancer had metastasized to his brain and lungs.
I learned to step out of the bay, ensuring the curtains were drawn as a young man restrained his tears for his mother whose life machine was unplugged.

Similarly, I learned that poets must communicate with their readers through empathy. Every detail of a poem doesn’t need to be understood by the reader, but the poem’s heart must be communicated clearly. That’s on the poet.

I am no good poet. Other poets in my generation are way beyond me. The most important thing that my jobs taught me was, perhaps, humility. And I don’t just mean being down to earth when we achieve success, but knowing that we must stay grounded – to acknowledge that we aren’t here forever, and to respect my body and my health. To be able to write, we must first live – live healthily and with a sense of responsibility. That if you burn the candle at both ends, you will wake up in darkness. That paracetamol – or any analgesics – aren’t always necessary because some people have a high pain threshold. And, on other occasions, some pain – even those from many winters ago – will always hurt.

Before I was a nurse, when I was still young and making sushi, I learned about the word ‘kodawari’: it is a Japanese value that means ‘to work in pursuit of perfection.’ As a poet and as a nurse, I aim to achieve my full potential – in patience, in passion, in paying attention. But kodawari is more than that: it is working in pursuit of perfection while knowing that perfection can never be attained. As I continue to navigate the worlds of nursing and poetry, I understand that mastery isn’t the goal; it is appreciation of apprenticeship; it is the growth, and the wisdom to know when to persevere and when to let go.

Donate to Poetry London

Be a part of the next 100 issues

To donate, please click on the button below, or send a cheque payable to ‘Poetry London’ to Poetry London, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW, UK.

Donate to Poetry London today

Discover more from this issue…

Summer 2024

Issue 108


The Summer 2024 issue, the first of new editor Niall Campbell, contains poetry by Michael Longley, Ian Humphreys, Isobel Dixon, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Helen Mort, and more. The issue also has mini features on the subject of ‘work’, that aim to make connections between the jobs done by poets and its impact on their writing. For the first time, Poetry London is also proud to partner with the Society of Authors to showcase poetry by this year’s recipients of the Eric Gregory Award. Also featured are translations of Laura Wittner by Juana Adcock, Jason Allen-Paisant‘s Stanza Poetry Festival lecture, prose from Joey Connelly, reviews, and an interview between Jennifer Lee Tsai and Hala Alyan.

Buy the Summer 2024 issue

Subscribe to Poetry London

Subscribe today!