Andrew Anderson has a deep, soft tone of voice, just as he approaches his work. He has been an oncology patients nurse for 35 years (at Maggie’s Edinburgh, Scotland). An untimely death in his family and the sudden loss of a great friend forged him, but also strong ties that keep him “steady” both with people as with nature, while accompanying families through painful processes: “It would be selfish of me to consider that it was my suffering”.
A childhood surrounded by nature in Zambia, an special message by planting oak trees in memory of a friend during COVID and a training as a Forest Bathing Guide with FTHub in Scotland are spots in a journey that led him to offer his patients, unable to go out, to have profound experiences through nature “as if they were there”.
“Thinking about my connection with nature is a great opportunity to reminisce. I was born in Zambia, in Africa, and obviously, as a kid, I didn’t really appreciate just how magnificent the opportunity that I had was. But as I’ve grown older, the experience of growing up outdoors was really important to me.
“I spent more time in dirt and in trees than I did inside. And there’s lots of pictures of me climbing jacaranda trees in the back garden surrounded by purple blossom and beautiful big trees, and it’s where I was happy. It was an adventure playground in trees, me and my dog running around in the back garden and having fun.
“And nature has always been a really important part of my life. My dad was very much an outdoors individual. We would often go on walks together. We went to the beach together, walking the dog. And he had a real appreciation of wildlife in nature, so he would always point out different birds and different wildlife, different insects, and it’s something that’s really grown as an integral part of who I am.
“Nature is something that holds me steady. It’s something that makes me feel secure and safe. It’s something that makes me feel small in relation to the complexity of this enormous world around us.
“So my early life experiences have, without question, had a profound effect on who I am and how I am. And I’m very grateful for them”.
The decision path
“I guess as a young teenager, I was sporting at school and reasonably academic, but not super academic. And in trying to choose what I might study at university after school, I was very unsure. I lived in Zambia until I was seven years old, and then we all moved as a family to Scotland.
“So I wasn’t really sure at all what I wanted to do with my life. My dad was an architect and my mum was a teacher of children with special needs. And I applied for a range of courses. But I did a work placement at my mum’s school, working with nurses and physiotherapists who were supporting children with special needs, particularly cerebral palsy.
“And I kind of did it just to tick a box because you had to do something at school like, you had to get some work experience. But it had a really important impact on me. Just to be able to see the capacity for genuine care and compassion, to transform people’s lives, to be able to really see these kids thriving and growing and being given the opportunity.
“And it is really important, being treated as really valuable human beings who had a lot to offer and a lot to give and also a lot to appreciate in life, rather than being children with problems. They were brilliant children with amazing capabilities, despite their challenges”.
“And then when I was applying for university, I was interviewed for a nursing course. And one of the interviewers really struck a chord with that experience. He talked about his experience of being a nurse, and he talked about what the essence of the course was and why he thought it was such an important degree to do.
“And I’m extremely grateful for that interview and really grateful for the career I’ve had as a result of it. And it wasn’t until the end of the degree course that you were able to really choose where you might have your final placements. And I chose to work in oncology.
“I really found it fascinating and challenging. But I also knew that we’d had a family experience with cancer that had a profound experience for all of us as a family.
“My grandfather died at a very young age and it had a big impact on my grandmother, obviously, but also my mum. And by virtue, it had an impact on me. So I was drawn to it partly as a sense of personal repair and family repair, but also as a sense of real commitment, because I understood the trauma that came as a result of it.
“And I was very fortunate that I had my last placement on an oncology guard, and then I’ve had a 35 year career in oncology nursing since then”.
Dealing with suffering
“It’s really difficult to know how I deal with it, because I’m not really sure how I do it, to be honest with you. Because I think to be a really good healthcare professional, you have to really feel. And I really feel my empathic regard is really high, my compassion is really high, but somehow my capacity to bear that is also really high.
“I think some of that is because I feel very secure in my relationships, secure in my family, secure with my friendships, secure with the connections that I have that hold me steady. I also am aware of the people I’m supporting, it would be selfish of me to consider that it was my suffering.
“It’s their challenge, it’s their complexity, it’s their adversity, and it’s them as a family who are experiencing the intensity and the intimacy of it. I have a role to play in that.
“And if my role can improve, can change, can enhance their quality of life and the quality of their communication, how they connect with one another, then I’m doing a good job in a painful situation. I know that the role that I have and my colleagues have can really transform people’s distress in a distressing situation”.
The journey ahead
“I’m very grateful to say that the feedback we get about the work that we do is that it’s transformative, it transforms people’s expectation of being overwhelmed, distressed, in pain, and actually, somehow cancer becomes an opportunity, not an opportunity anybody would choose to have. But within the lack of choice, then there are opportunities.
“The opportunity for reconnection, the opportunity for forgiveness, the opportunity to express love and compassion, the opportunity to be able to tell people why they really love them and what it is that really makes their relationships rich. And it’s a proper privilege to be alongside that. To walk along that path with somebody is a challenging but a brilliant thing to do.
“And I think because I hold that philosophy, I think that’s what allows me to bear it. That’s what allows me not to be overwhelmed by it and to continue to want to do it.
“The other really important thing to say is that within the organization I work with, there’s been an absolute commitment to peer supervision and structured staff support. And we have a weekly two hour meeting that is about talking about our distress, talking about our overwhelm, talking about where a story has really impacted you and you’re struggling to let it go.
“Structurally, the organization has done a brilliant job in making sure that that’s an essential part of how, as a human being, you can be in this painful place. So that’s another really important part of how I’ve sustained myself”.
The oak trees
“I worked with Maggie’s for 23 years, and on my 20th year, I was given an opportunity to take a one month sabbatical as a gift. And four days after I was given that gift, COVID happened. So we went into lockdown and I wasn’t able to use my gift. But it gave me a long time to consider what I might want to do with that month away from work.
“And because of what I described at the very start in terms of my love and my connection with the outside space, it had been in my head as something to want to do. Also, really importantly for me, seven years ago, my very best friend in the world, very tragically died of a heart attack, very unexpectedly. And I was really profoundly affected by that.
“And as part of my healing in relation to his loss, I’ve grown oak trees from the oak tree that’s in my back garden. And I’ve planted an oak tree in his memory six years ago. And I’ve been planting oak trees since then because it just feels like the right thing to do. And it would be something he would love for me to do, and it’s something I love doing.
“So I’ve been doing a lot of work in nature and actually literally planting trees and also being in and around trees for the last six years, since Neil died. So that’s also been a really important part of kind of thinking about what is it I’m getting from this experience?
“Why has that been so therapeutically healing in my grief? And what might it be about that experience that I want to know a bit more about, which is what took me to thinking about signing up for the course. And the training was really spectacularly brilliant”.
The quiet head
“I gave feedback to my colleagues after the week I had, the immersion that I had, saying that it’s the first time in 30 years where I’ve had a quiet head. So for me, partly, that was about being held by two really brilliant facilitators, by people who were experienced and wise, but they also had the responsibility for the course.
“I didn’t have the responsibility. Normally, it’s me that facilitates. And it was great not to be the facilitator. It was also wonderful to be around people who had a similar sense of commitment and interest and passion for outside space and what that was about. And I really appreciated meeting quite a diverse but also a really united group of individuals.
“But I also really appreciated being in my own space and having space to think and just being able to be still in that beechwood in the lowlands of Scotland was a really profound experience. And it did really quiet in my head and it’s something that I knew I needed more of and wanted more of. And thankfully, I’ve gone on to do that at a personal level and partly professionally, too.
“And it also really helped me to make a decision about my work. And subsequent to the course and my training, I’ve changed my role within the organization and now I’m in a training and development role from IVs, but also that is now a part time role.
“And that’s given me more time to plant more trees and to be in woodlands in Scotland”.
Guiding in the forest
“So the guiding that we’ve done with the organization I work with, the built space is very important, so the buildings we work in are very important, but the outside space is just as important. So we are very fortunate in each of the centers to have a garden space.
“And we’ve used that for some of our meditation mindfulness work. And I’ve included some of the forest bathing work within that.
“But what I spoke about within the presentation I gave was about virtual forest bathing, or proxy forest bathing. This is a conversation I had with a really special individual. He had an experience where his energy levels were very difficult, but he was a mountain man and it was how he still accessed the mountains whilst being in his bed.
“So what I’ve done with a number of oncology patients is when they’ve been very restricted to a wheelchair or to their bed, how they still access that space that they can reminisce about that space that they can really feel that was enlivening and uplifting and rewarding for them and how they take that journey back.
“What the scents were, what the sounds were, what the feel was and how they immerse themselves back in that space of nature. And it’s been really beautiful to watch. I’ve done it on a very small level so far, but my keenness is to think about how this might grow because it gives people the capacity to step out of their physical restrictions and some of the emotional restrictions that a cancer diagnosis might bring”.
“I think for the future, I’m hugely impressed by what I heard from Alex and what the FTHub’s desire is to bring as much awareness around outside space and the benefits to be gained from it. We should find more ways for communities to come together around their shared passion.
“And also, like I experienced, helping people to quiet in their minds to then to become more focused on what is really essentially important to us as human beings.
“The world makes us too busy. They distract us from the core components of what life is all about. And these natural approaches to life are the things that are the essence of being a human. And they’re also the essence of what helps us to connect with each other in our shared experience of it.
“In my experience of life, when we get to the simplest of things, it’s where we feel happiest. When we get to the simplest of things that help us to connect with one another in a very shared way, it lets us be happy. And that simple approach is really what I think I want to get more of personally and professionally.
“But the simplicity doesn’t mean it’s not complex. The simplicity doesn’t mean it’s not deep. The simplicity doesn’t mean it’s not existentially rich. It’s just trying to tune down from what we’ve created around ourselves”.
Ph: Courtesy Andrew Anderson