Mike O'Leary Storyteller

To mark our BBC Radio 4 Appeal, we talk to Royal Cornwall Hospital’s Storyteller and Hospital Teacher about the importance of books and stories for long-term patient, William, and his mum, Hannah.

It’s easy to think that storytelling is just what the word says: telling a story. But since working at Read for Good and meeting our truly unique group of storytellers, and some of the hospital school and play team staff they work with, I’ve learned that storytelling is so much more, particularly for a child in hospital.

This was exactly what I felt when I spoke to Mike O’Leary, Read for Good’s storyteller in the Royal Cornwall Hospital. He told me about the time he met William – whose Mum, Hannah is currently making the BBC Radio 4 Appeal on behalf of Read for Good – just after he had received a sudden cancer diagnosis. In the appeal, Hannah describes the calming effect that meeting Mike and choosing a book had on William as he processed this traumatic news.

When Mike visits the Royal Cornwall Hospital to tell stories and offer children the gift of a brand-new book from the Read for Good bookcase, he works alongside Fiona (or Fi) and Dee, who are both hospital teachers, and play specialist, Faye. In each hospital that hosts a Read for Good bookcase and resident storyteller, either play team or hospital school team staff, and sometimes both, act as custodians of the Read for Good bookcase and books in between the half-termly storyteller visits. So, Mike, Fi and Dee have all played a part in William’s cancer journey and after hearing mum, Hannah’s beautiful recollections of their encounters, I was eager to hear what the experience meant to both Mike and Fi. 

Mike explained what happens on a typical visit; after catching up with Fi and Dee and learning who is in hospital on that day, Mike then travels the ward with Read for Good’s bright orange, bespoke-designed bookcase on wheels. It is jam-packed with a range of enticing books, from the latest award-winners and best-sellers, to familiar favourites and treasured classics, offering something for children of all ages, in need of a little escape.

Mike was wheeling the Read for Good bookcase, gently and unobtrusively around the ward looking for children who might welcome distraction or need cheering up, when he first saw William, surrounded by doctors and consultants. Mike said “I didn’t know what was happening, but I did know there was something quite serious going on.” It was the bookcase that sparked Mike’s very first conversation with William, one that wasn’t full of medical jargon or diagnosis details, but was about what books William liked to read. During this first conversation, Mike was touched by a particularly poignant request from William, to choose a book, not for himself, but for his little sister Lowenna who was about to find out that her big brother had cancer. Mike remembers thinking that “this was particularly thoughtful of him because he’d just had a diagnosis, and I was rather impressed that first he thought of her.

Mike told me of another occasion when he met William, just after William had found out that he would have to unexpectedly start chemotherapy in Bristol the next day, on his 14th birthday. To help William once again process upsetting news, Mike told him a tale about the sleeping warriors under Trencrom Hill, a local Cornish landmark. Mike explained that stories in the oral tradition can be therapeutic to listen to for someone who is feeling distressed, because in these stories there are often a lot of patterns and shapes, and an elliptical rather than a linear narrative. 

Mike, Read for Good Storyteller and William Beynon

This meant that “William didn’t have to think too much about meaning in the story or plot or character or anything like that, just the sun setting behind the hill and the warriors circling round, and in those patterns and shapes you can find a bit of space to relax. He just needed that kind of story.” Mike’s words chimed with what William’s mum Hannah had written to us afterwards. Hannah said “it gave William time to sit back and process the information he was given in a calming atmosphere.

Imagining the hospital through the eyes of Mike as he visits for storytelling sessions gave me a small window into everyday life for patients like William and hospital teachers like Fi. Fi shared with me just how well Mike fits in too; she described how she and Dee have to be “so flexible, re-juggling and re-shuffling and Mike just fits in brilliantly“.

Fi described how unless you actually have a child in hospital, it’s hard to understand how constraining it is; as hospital teachers, she said “we try to be an escape from the to-ing and fro-ing and medical invasions“. Fi added that amidst the challenge and distress of a hospital stay it’s still important to create positive moments within a child’s journey in hospital. She told me how she especially loves coming across a book on the Read for Good bookcase that she knows will be the perfect book for a recurrent patient who will be back in hospital soon for treatment. Fi told me that she once saved a book about trains to give to William, knowing how much he likes model railways, model trains and taking train-spotting journeys with his grandad. As she said this, I thought of something Mike had said about Fi and Dee about how in awe he is of their extraordinary ability to adapt, but beneath it all, how caring they always are. 

Fi Fletcher, Hospital School Teacher and Faye Hill, Play Specialist

What struck me most during my conversations with Fi and Mike was the admiration they hold for each other. Mike described how essential his relationship with Fi and Dee is to his role as a Read for Good storyteller; meanwhile Fi said that “Mike is amazing! Straight away, the children are in raptures.” Listening to Mike and Fi talk, I heard how everyone fights a little harder in hospital to hold onto the good things and that storytelling can play a really vital role in this. Fi went on to explain that although Mike describes himself as ‘a five-minute hero’ just popping in and out of the hospital, she sees that his work “has a much bigger impact. He really sets things off“. Fi went on to explain that sometimes the children will continue the stories they create with Mike long after he has gone. This made me reflect on William’s story that his mum Hannah shared with us, how Mike’s brief meetings with William “made the cancer journey ok“.

Read for Good operates in all 30 of the UK’s major children’s hospitals, working closely with members of the hospital school or the play team, without whom it simply wouldn’t be possible for Read for Good to deliver books or storytelling sessions. Prior to joining the charity, I hardly knew that schools or play teams existed. Since being a part of Read for Good I’ve had a humbling glimpse into the incredible, challenging and essential work of these often overlooked worlds within hospitals. I have nothing but the deepest respect for the work they do.  

You can still listen to Hannah sharing her and William’s story at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0014fwx 

Holly McSweeney,

Fundraising and Project Officer

Read for Good