Students document the stories of people with lung disease

The personal histories of people living with lung disease have been documented by students and transformed into art as part of a new interdisciplinary learning project at the University of Plymouth.

Members of the Plymouth Breathe Easy Support Group were interviewed by History undergraduates, who recorded their memories and stories using oral history, including reflections upon their debilitating conditions.

These oral histories were then taken by Illustration students and used as the inspiration for a range of artwork encompassing graphic comics, storyboards and an interactive game.

And earlier this month, at a special event on campus, the Breathe Easy members were able to see for the first time how their words had been recorded, interpreted and turned into art.

“It’s been a fascinating project,” 

says Dr Darren Aoki, Associate Professor of World History and Oral History, in the School of Society and Culture. 

“We have brought together history, illustration and medicine and set about documenting and interpreting these hidden histories. And through it, some really powerful themes have emerged, such as how we’ve come to learn so much more about our environment and our health, but at the same time, how maybe we’ve lost some of that sense of community that we once had.”

The project began at the start of the year, when the history students conducted the interviews with the Breathe Easy Plymouth members over Zoom, when many were living in isolation due to the pandemic and the second national lockdown.

“This in itself was incredibly important,”

said project co-lead John Kilburn, Lecturer in Illustration in the School of Art, Design and Architecture.

“All of the interviewees expressed how the engagement with the students broke the sense of isolation they were feeling, which had been compounded by their own vulnerability to COVID. It established a ‘duty of care’ that was maintained throughout the project, as the students were responsible for representing these intensely personal reflections and memories.”

The interviews were designed to explore how health had shaped each person’s historical identity, including their relationships; their engagement with medical professionals, institutions, processes, and treatments; their aspirations, achievements, difficulties, and hardships; and especially their own sense of wellbeing.

For ‘Maureen’, that narrative was defined by smoking: of how she had been exposed to it through her mother and had inherited the habit ‘without knowing the pitfalls’; and how her relationship with her own daughter was being restricted by that daughter’s contrasting antipathy towards smoking.

A murky picture of London smog in the 1960s, meanwhile, emerged in ‘Penny’s’ story. A then trainee nurse working in a nursery, Penny described a city enveloped in acrid, green, smelly coal-fired pollution, which has left a legacy in her lungs, as evidenced by the chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) she experiences today.

These stories were taken on by the Illustration students, who initially worked in groups to create a series of ‘graphic memoirs’, exploring themes of identity, environment and physical health. Later, the students developed solo projects using a broader range of art styles including printmaking and animation. The finished works included charcoal drawings and futuristic graphic novels – all of which were seen by the interviewees for the first time at the presentation event.

“It was a very powerful moment to bring together the students with the members of the support group,”

The project builds on previous interdisciplinary work undertaken by the University with counterparts in Liverpool and Alberta, Canada, under the FRESH AIR: World banner. This has included Plymouth students travelling to countries such as Uganda to create visual educational materials to help people understand the causes of COPD, such as open fires, smoking and poor ventilation. And across Africa and Asia, Plymouth-created imagery is widely used to transcend language and cultural barriers in a variety of settings, including a student animation that is included in the training of healthcare workers in Kenya, reaching 140,000 people and counting.

It also represents the first of an ongoing series of collaborations between History and Illustration that will cover a range of subjects including: conservation history; global health partnerships; and intergenerational community Knowledge Exchange in Cornwall and Devon. In each case, the focus will remain on documenting stories and then reflecting them back to the community.

“The ethos of the Breathe Easy project has been to give back to the community these stories and histories,”

concludes Darren.

“So rather than documenting these voices and just storing them in a dusty archive, we reimagine them and return them so that we can learn from their experiences.”

says John.

“And it was a lot for them to take in – to see these works for the first time and be confronted by their own story but in an entirely new and sometimes challenging form.”

FRESH AIR international research programme

The University of Plymouth is leading on several projects within the FRESH AIR programme including the pulmonary rehabilitation projects in remote settings, starting in mountain villages in Crete with aims to progress to remote high altitude nomadic communities in Kyrgyz Republic and rural communities in Vietnam. There is also a project evaluating an education programme for midwives in rural Uganda to deliver improving pregnancy outcomes and child health in the first six months of life.

Professor Rupert Jones is leading a team of Plymouth researchers within an international collaboration in a range of studies addressing the problem of chronic lung disease in resource-poor settings.

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