Former Preston nurse Kate Eastham's novel explores pandemic challenges

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When the Coronavirus pandemic hit Kate Eastham wanted to help but knew she could not return to nursing. Then came an unexpected publishing opportunity as Fiona Finch reports.

As the Coronavirus pandemic gathered pace former nurse Kate Eastham was torn.

The Preston based author and carer knew she could not return to frontline nursing, but she still wanted to help.

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She said: "Although a retired nurse, I still feel I am a nurse. I can't shake it off. It's so part of me. I had received a call from the Nursing and Midwifery Council because it was less than three years since my name went off the register. At that time they were looking for volunteers and I received this letter. I just wanted to help so much. I knew I couldn't. I'm a full time carer.."

Novelist Kate EasthamNovelist Kate Eastham
Novelist Kate Eastham

Then an intervention by her publisher provided her with the opportunity to make a difference by writing about Britain's experience of a much earlier but deadly pandemic - the feared Spanish flu.

Kate set to work on immediately and her book entitled "When The World Stood Still" has just been published.

The 62 year old, who attended Whitechapel school and Penwortham Girls Grammar and was brought up near Beacon Fell, had already written five novels drawing on her nursing career and interest in the history of nursing. These include Miss Nightingale's Nurses and Coming Home To Liverpool.

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Kate said she realised she could use her nursing experience to write a novel which navigates all the uncertainties and emotions of dealing with a pandemic and would speak to today's readers. There were parallels and there were of course differences between the pandemics - Spanish flu predominantly affected people in their 20s and 30s

Kate Eastham's new novel "When The World Stood Still"Kate Eastham's new novel "When The World Stood Still"
Kate Eastham's new novel "When The World Stood Still"

She said: "You could fall ill in the morning and become cyanotic (blue lips and skin from insufficient oxygen in the blood) and be dead that day - it could be so rapid."

She continued: "As soon as I had my lead protagonist. A young nurse, very capable, quite a fiery character and very strong willed. I felt like something had fallen into place...It was a surreal experience writing about a pandemic. I was soon gripped by it."

Images from her research caught her imagination including that of a nurse caring for a young dying friend and trying to give her hope and comfort. She said :"There was an image of a nurse wearing her cotton mask and a theatre gown ... They had no real PPE (personal protection equipment). They didn't really understand at that time about viruses, virology was in its infancy. They assumed it was (caused by) bacteria."

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Kate said the writing experience becomes so immersive it can take her back to her own nursing days. She said: "I felt like when writing about nursing some of the days I feel like I'm actually there. I'm with the patients. I'm still nursing them."

Kate Eastham has now written six novelsKate Eastham has now written six novels
Kate Eastham has now written six novels

Recalling her training at Preston Royal Infirmary and Sharoe Green Hospital, Fulwood, in the 1970s she said: "Some people can't do it but if you can you learn such a lot in a short space of time and you learn about life and the world and how precious life is and how easily it can be taken away in a moment. Now with this pandemic the world has had a moment like that. People have seen what can happen it's so indiscriminate."

Her husband Joe was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2005 and as the illness progressed it became clear Kate could not care for him as she wished and continue nursing. First she cut her hours and then accepted that it was not practical to continue doing even the occasional shift. That is when the writing began.

Kate, from Walton-le-Dale, began to research the history of nursing out of interest, but then discovered a talent for writing novels incorporating both her knowledge from decades of nursing and her wider knowledge of the history of the profession.

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She said: "I always felt I'm a good reader. I didn't really think I could write anything. Then I had to give up my nursing. I loved nursing and I had to find something."

She continued: "I've always been a reader and I love literature and history as well. I started writing as a coping mechanism."

Such was her love of books that she studied for an English degree at Lancaster university when her three children, now aged 38, 34 and 32, were young, as well as continuing to do nursing night shifts at weekends.

She counts herself fortunate that thanks to the Internet it is easy to do research from home and she said: "I work very flexibly and obviously I have to prioritise my husband's needs, but we just jog along. I do write every day. I have a routine. I get up, check that he's OK ."

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Then she said she starts writing because whatever stage she has been at in her novel "seems to brew overnight when I'm actively writing. I sit down and get on and write. I'll go backwards and forwards to the computer ... I have to be writing. "

Kate said Joe had deep brain stimulation surgery in 2016 and this had eased some of his symptoms, but nevertheless his is a progressive condition. As a couple she feels they maybe had one advantage when it came to coping with lockdown.

She said: "Obviously it's been a very strange time. For everyone the lockdown has been a very emotional experience. In a way when you live with someone who has a chronic long term illness your world becomes smaller and you learn in a way to cope with it. We were perhaps better prepared than some to go into lockdown. Having said that not seeing the family come has been hard. It's not been easy for everyone."

"When The World Stood Still" by Kate Eastham is on sale at £8.95 on Amazon and is published by Bookouture. It is also available on Kindle at £1.99.

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