The Milkweed Monarchs – Commended NHS Entry – Hippocrates Poetry Prize 2014


The Milkweed Monarchs

I was riding my favourite bike. The Chopper
with the red flag and the silver streamers on the handlebars.
Minding my own business, cruising down Beach Road
to school at Kaikoura Flat. Happened right outside the
Whale Watch Office. “Idiot tourists,” Dad said,
“never bloody look where they’re going.”

Don’t remember much after that. Just the pain
in my tummy, the chunder and that funny shaped
bruise that crept like a shadow across my skin.
“Handlebars mashed his Pancreas,” the guy said to Mum
after they airlifted me to Christchurch. Wish I could
remember the ride. They’d given me the needle by then.

Couldn’t understand a word when I came to; most of
the docs were from England. Got my own room
on the kids ward though, was pretty stoked at first.
Turns out nine weeks in one room can really turn you off
a place. Kept telling me I couldn’t eat and put a stupid
tube in my chest, for the ‘food’ to drip in overnight.

Would’ve gone mad if it weren’t for the Monarchs.
Mum and Dad bought them in from the farm,
loads of tiny ones on bunches of Milkweed. Boy were
they hungry, just ate and ate whilst I couldn’t. Got fatter
and fatter, the black and yellow stripes growing
further apart. Docs were more interested in them than me.

Didn’t mind though, those ugly critters. Gave most of them
names. Watched how they crawled round my room before
they tucked their tails under like upside-down question marks.
Mum said I was daft, but I knew they would save me.
As soon as they slipped on those bright green overcoats
and changed for good, wearing precious crowns of gold.

“Coincidence,” the docs said. I don’t reckon. My pancreas
would’ve been stuffed if it weren’t for them. When the
cocoons turned black and then transparent, I could see
orange wings inside. First one came out all small and wet
with a loud POP. Just like the noise my brother makes
when people kiss on TV. I knew it was my time too.

Pressed the buzzer and the nurses came flying.
Pulled out the drips, blood spurting over the sheets
but I was free. Stretched my arms wide and stuffed a
Chocolate Fish in my mouth before they got near me.
You should’ve heard the shouting, but I didn’t care;
there weren’t no Pseudocyst in me no more.


I was inspired to write the poem ‘The Milkweed Monarchs’ after working as a junior doctor in Paediatrics in New Zealand. The parents of a patient brought in Milkweed plants with tiny caterpillars on to entertain her (and all the staff too.) The memory of those caterpillars turning into Monarch butterflies on the children’s ward whilst the patient recovered is something that will always stay with me.


The Hippocrates Prize has attracted interest from 61 countries in the 5 years since its launch.
The prize, at £5000 is among the largest of its kind in the world for a single poem.
It aims to bring together interest in the interface between health and poetry from health professionals, patients and their families, and poets from around the world.


Words Copyright Eliot North 2014.


Image from Brain Pickings – ‘Art, Science and Butterfly Metamorphosis: How a 17th-Century Woman Laid the Foundations of Modern Entomology.’

(I realise this isn’t a Monarch Image or Milkweed BUT it’s a lovely image and a great post from Brain Pickings. Check it to below……)


Ensemble : A Poem about the beginnings of Performing Research

Ensemble : A Poem about the beginnings of Performing Research


In darkness, we gather at St Luke’s
on Claremont. Light shines
from mullioned windows.

Strangers, we search for a way inside
(outside our normal spheres.)

Known only by symbols:
we do not speak, yet we say so much.

We move alone
before we group and clump,
divide and separate.

Making mirrors of each other’s bodies.

We Stop,
We Go,
Jump Up,
Crouch Down.

Go back then forwards.
Or is it just the reverse?

We make eye contact,
then break away.

Only to look back over our shoulders
(before doing it again with someone new.)

Nothing here is proper:
we are no longer comforted by fact.

Instructed we form a circle.
Move closer, closer,closer
until our bodies touch.

Shoulder to shoulder,
arm in arm,
holding ourselves and then each other.
Palm to palm,
flesh pressed into flesh.

We move,
always some part of our body in contact
with another’s.

Out of curiosity,
and then in anger.
Through mud and water
we make connections.

Breathing, sweating, limbs entwining,
clamouring to the compass points.

Repelled and attracted in equal measure.

Neither death nor gravity can part us:

We Move Together
As One.

Words Copyright Eliot North 2014


I read this poem after the Performing Research show at Northern Stage on 27th March 2014. We then had a panel discussion about using performance and theatre to engage the public and explore our different cross-disciplinary research and teaching interests throughout Newcastle University.  It was a fabulous night and has been a hugely successful and enriching experience being part of the Performing Research ensemble guided by Cap-a-Pie.

The Gordon Museum of Pathology

Gordon's Museum of Pathology

Dare Quam Accipere*
The Gordon Museum of Pathology

Walk up to the black door
in Guy’s Hospital, London.
Enter by appointment
read the Latin written there.

Inside lies a chamber,
to which few are invited.
Three floors of human specimens
span four hundred years.

A museum hung and quartered,
opposing segments yellow, blue.
White painted balconies
repeat the hospital crest.

Explore each section slowly,
tread soft on spiral stair.
Lean against wooden rests,
gaze on rows of jars.

Note how the unborn lie
right next to the dead.
Body parts coded, organised,
chaotic disease made good.

*Better to give than receive

Copyright Eliot North 2014

I wrote this poem after being lucky enough to go to The Gordon’s Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital in London whilst on a weekend of collaboration with the artist Rachael Allen.
We have been given a collaboration bursary by a-n (artists’s network) to work on a Project called ‘Lessons in Anatomy: Dissecting Medicine and Health Through Visual and Literary Arts collaboration.’
The weekend in London visiting the Royal Colleges of Medicine and Surgery, The Gordon’s Museum of Pathology, Wellcome Trust and British Library was the start point for us and it was fabulous.

This poem is one tiny start to what I imagine will be many months ahead of creative dialogue with Rachael that I hope to post about on here.

The Gordon’s Museum of Pathology you can read about by clicking this link. (The image is copied from their website)

Also Rachael has written about our collaboration on the a-n blog here:

Enjoy! xxx

He Blew Me a Kiss

Parkinson's image


He Blew Me a Kiss

She liked Frank, they connected

despite his expressionless face. Behind the wound-up limbs and tremor

a gentle man shone out from the mask.


When she visited they would share a cuppa.

Chat about this and that. Do the ‘medication shuffle’;

a two-step dance they both knew well.


She’d heard about stem cell research.

How they’d taken swabs from patients’ skin. Growing stem cells

from skin cells in dishes, right there in the lab up the road.


These stem cells would then become brain cells.

Models of Parkinson’s just like Frank’s. For testing newer and better

medications and perhaps one day even a cure.


The last time she saw Frank it was snowing

but he insisted on accompanying her out. Standing by the gate like a sentinel

he’d wave her off that one last time.


Later she’d think of stem cells like kisses

blown on the winter air. A hand lifted slowly towards a frozen face.

The moment captured in her rear-view mirror.



I won the EuroStemCell creative non-fiction poetry competition which I’m really chuffed about.

Here’s the link to their site, come along to the event on 23rd October In Edinburgh if you can, tickets going on sale soon I think.

Brain Teaser

Brain Teaser

Engraved Human Phrenology Skull : from the Wellcome Collection.

Found this picture on the Craniophiles Blog:

Below is a work in progress (that I can’t get to format on here!) Anyway, it’s based on a truth that I learned from the anatomy teachers at Newcastle Medical School Anatomy Labs….


A human skull lies on a plinth. On one side a manila envelope rests, on the other a hammer, 1.25kg of chickpeas and 1.6L of water. The words OPEN ME are written in thick, black ink on the envelope. Two students stand next to the plinth, unaware they are being recorded. The girl picks up the envelope and runs her finger along it.

“Alas, poor Yorick!” the boy says, picking up the skull.

“Put it down, you’ll break it,” the girl says as she studies the contents of the envelope.

Disarticulate the skull; the hammer is a prop.

“What’s with the chickpeas?” the boy asks as he tosses the skull into the air and catches it with his other hand.

Swiftly she takes the skull from the boy. It’s heavier than expected. She traces the suture lines with a finger following the fissures and notches, fossae and processes.

“Chickpeas expand in water don’t they?” he says, picking a stray bit of crisp from a molar.

“You’re right, they do,” she says turning the skull over to look at the gaping black hole of the foramen magnum, not giving away a thing until she’s sure.

“You’ve only got it,” a small smile flickers on her lips.

She holds the skull upside down and waits whilst he pours first the chickpeas then the water, before carefully resting it back on the plinth.

The boy picks up the hammer.

“Would’ve been a lot easier if we used this,” he says.

The girl rolls her eyes at him.

They stand and wait, her arms crossed. He pretends to play hacky sac but quickly tires and starts to whistle a tune she can’t name. Exasperated she sits on the floor and he fast follows. Soon they are chatting. About campus life and who’s with whom, all the latest gossip. They have more in common than they thought.

The clock ticks, hours pass and nothing happens. The boy gets up and studies the skull. He pokes it with a finger.

“Hey, don’t. We’ve just got to wait it out.”

He rocks back on his heels and exhales a long, frustrated breath.

“God this is boring,” he says. “Look at this.”

The boy promptly lifts up his arms and throws himself into a handstand, all the blood draining to his head. With eyes bulging he smiles and sticks out his tongue. She shakes her head.

“You’re an idiot,” she says, trying not to laugh.

His body remains inverted for a few minutes but then he begins to wobble, starting to tip towards the plinth on which the skull rests, brim full of chickpeas.

“No,” she screams and leaps up, pushing his legs away. He collapses into a heap, narrowly missing the skull. “It’s like you want to fail.”

She sits down arms crossed once more. He waits it out, walks around the lab and pretends to look at body parts suspended in formaldehyde, foetuses arrested in development. When he judges she has cooled off he sits behind her. They rest back to back. The boy whistles quietly at first and then slowly builds to a virtuoso crescendo until she groans and he abruptly stops. As the daylight fades, their eyelids grow heavy. Soon they sleep, tired heads lolling.

Chickpeas swell and sutures part.

At dawn they wake as sunlight filters through the glass roof on to where they lie, cradled in each other’s arms. Faces flushed they jump apart before they even think to look at the skull.

Blinking in the sunlight they try to avoid each other’s eye. He mumbles something she doesn’t catch before they finally approach the plinth. Taking care not to disturb anything they move as if it were a crime scene. They see the skull disarticulated into perfect bone islands, on a sea of swollen chickpeas that look like tiny human brains.

When they realise what they have done they turn towards each other and hug, her laughter surfacing like air long trapped in water before he silences it with a kiss.






Words: copyright Eliot North (2013) – latest edit 2016

Doctors as Writers

The title of my blog ‘Chekhov was a doctor’ was taken from something the writer William Fiennes said to me on an Arvon writing course. I had just started to write really and this week was the first creative writing course I’d been on. William Fiennes and Mark Haddon were the tutors and I totally lucked out getting a place. There is nothing like reading aloud your own writing to get the nerves flying but it was one of the most inspiring weeks I’ve ever experienced. After a tutorial with William Fiennes I said, “So I shouldn’t give up the day job just yet”  (I work as a GP) and he said to me “Well Chekhov was a doctor.”

I’ll never forget that moment of encouragement and here is the blog that sparked off from that comment. I was amazed when I realised how many famous authors were also doctors and I wish I could have made this lecture in Edinburgh last year, but I’m sure there will be many more.

Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

Edinburgh University Medical Humanities Research Network presents:
Doctors as Writers
Panel discussion
Wednesday 14th November 6 – 7.45 pm
Followed by a wine reception
Teviot Lecture Theatre, Old Medical School, Doorway 5

There is a long tradition of doctor-writers throughout history, most  notably from the eighteenth century onwards, but going as far back as antiquity. From Keats to Smollett, from Chekhov to Conan Doyle, physicians have written about the great dramas of human life and existence. From their unique insight into life and death situations, doctors have created some of the most fascinating stories and characters in literature.
Dr Iain McClure, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist for the NHS and playwright for the BBC; Dr Gavin Francis, local Edinburgh GP and travel writer; Dr Peter Dorward, local Edinburgh GP, university lecturer and award-winning short fiction writer will form a panel discussing the ways in which being a doctor helps them…

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