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How to collaborate in a pandemic?

When Transplant Imaginaries visits the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society

Transplant Imaginaries is an AHRC Leadership Fellowship, run by Dr Donna McCormack, Senior Lecturer, School of English Literature and Languages, University of Surrey. Donna is a visiting researcher at Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society from February to September 2020.

Image showing Donna and Ingrid in collaboration

Image copyright: Donna McCormack

Transplant Imaginaries has had many disruptions prior to the current pandemic, including illness, surgery and death of loved ones. It’s been a bumpy ride physically and emotionally almost from the start. From February of this year, I was supposed to be spending my time as a visiting Researcher at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society (CCBS) at the University of Edinburgh, to work with a number of members, but primarily to work with Dr Ingrid Young. I’ve worked closely with Ingrid on a number of projects, including Medical Imaginaries, where we co-organised a workshop at the Centre for Womens and Gender Studies in Bergen, and Global Medical Imaginaries, which had an international workshop and public lecture at the University of Edinburgh. We’ve also co-organised a film screening on Transplants and HIV as part of the CBSS’s 2019 Being Human programme of events, with a sold out post-show discussion.

However, along with most other people, it’s now impossible for me or Ingrid to be at the Centre itself. The possibility of engaging with others and hearing about their work is seriously reduced, but this hasn’t stopped us from trying to develop our research links and our future plans.

I’m interested in organ transplantation and alternative forms of knowledge on this phenomenon. By alternative I mean knowledge that emerges from memoirs, patient narratives, fiction (including film and novels) and other creative forms of expression that does not always adhere to or may even challenge existing narratives of transplantation. I’m specifically interested in time and space and how the experience of these phenomena may be altered by the experience of transplantation.  

In light of my research focus, Ingrid and I have been discussing our shared interests in bodies, social justice, biomedicine and illness, and in particular how narratives of HIV and transplantation can and do intersect. For example, within biomedical practices, our colleague Dr June Fabian (from the Global Medical Imaginaries Network) performed the first transplant from a HIV+ deceased donor to a recipient living with HIV in South Africa in the last few years. We’ve also explored these issues through more culturally oriented activities, such when we did a public screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother as part of the Being Human Festival; here we focused on how these illnesses may be imagined in both acute and chronic terms. Indeed, we’re now working on chronic illness and considering HIV and transplants in terms of chronicity and how this may alter ways of thinking about both individually and at their intersections.

So far, we’ve been talking about planning an event as part of the Being Human Festival building on some of the photographic work I’ve done, incorporating an event around chronic illness and photography (more details soon!). We’ve also been discussing the implications of pandemic life for those living with chronic illness, how vulnerability, risk and time is of particular importance in the midst of lockdown, shielding practices and longer term implications in the context of a public health emergency. Indeed, we’ve spent time talking about and writing on the meaning of segregation in terms of confining certain groups to the home, and whether alternative policies and practices may be possible.

We may not have all the joys of being able to meet in Edinburgh, but we are still trying to find ways to develop our Global Medical Imaginaries project, and especially to think about this in light of possible longer-term lockdown. While it would be great to be actively involved in the Centre, this experience also gives us time to reflect on how we may do events and collaborations in the future, and how our experience of research may change as we remain in our homes. We’re certain that this dialogue will continue given the urgent need to discuss how people with chronic illnesses – shielded or not – will not only survive a pandemic but also flourish in this changing world.