16th December 2021
TUH Arts Officer and Heartbeats TUH Choir Member Alison Baker Kerrigan
“It’s just that sense that when you start singing, everything else goes away – you can’t sing and think of something else. You are just in the moment.”
Ali Baker Kerrigan is Arts Officer with Tallaght University Hospital (TUH). She leads an inspirational, creative and important Arts and Health Programme in TUH with many involved directly and indirectly. Their work and their contribution to both patient and staff care and morale while immeasurable, is in many ways tangible as seen through the physical art and musical endeavours evident across the campus. A member of the Heartbeats-TUH Choir, Ali was also involved in the recent RTE TV production with the David Brophy led Frontline Choir and she will feature next Tuesday afternoon in the online HSE Health and Wellbeing Staff Christmas Concert that will involve HSE Staff Choirs from across the country along with guest choirs and special invited guests.
A committed chorister, Ali animatedly extolls the virtues and benefits of belonging to and singing in a choir. And although like every other choir over the past year and half they have faced into the virtual world of zoom to continue with their musical output, the reward has been the continuation of their choir and a strengthening of the bond and collective uplift that singing brings.
Working as Arts Officer for the past five years, Ali explains that prior to that she was “assisting the previous Arts Officer who started the TUH Choir in 2013. After winning Workplace Choir of the Year the Choir continued temporarily but then disbanded for about a year and a half. One of the first things I wanted to do was get the Choir up and running again. It was renamed Heartbeats TUH Choir and thankfully it has gone from strength to strength thanks to the core members that we have – who are back year after year. Membership is always in flux, sometimes colleagues can have change of job, have other commitments or some members might retire. Retired staff or anyone who has previously worked in the hospital is more than welcome to remain in the choir.”
Featuring members from right across the hospital and from many differing disciplines, Ali explains that they include an element of self-care for choir members including a workshop every year:
“When Covid hit we were wondering how we were going to continue, but we decided to give it a go. And somehow we managed to keep the choir running online. We had some great banter, quizzes, learnt new songs and how to create home recordings too. Just a few members stepped aside and said online wasn’t for them but about 18 members continued on with all rehearsals over zoom.”
For Ali however, the cathartic support of choir singing delivered in a way she would never have imagined in 2021 when she sadly lost her mum, Kay Baker: “The Choir Committee were planning a workshop – scheduled for early March. It crossed over with the RTE Frontline Choir submission process where people were starting to submit applications to join the choir. I was putting in an application for one of our own choir members and I wrote a few lines in the application to describe the sense of what it is like to sing in a choir. Those few lines sparked something in our Music Therapist here in TUH, Clara Monahan who asked if she could use them. And I said of course.”
“The smile that comes from singing together, the purest note of every song, it resonates from deep within, the powerful sense we all belong” 'One Heartbeat'
“Unfortunately I couldn’t participate in the workshop because my mum was sick in hospital and a few days before I was told she was at end of life. That weekend Clara facilitated the workshop and she and the choir members went on to write a song which became ‘One Heartbeat’. Our Choir Director Michael Fay then arranged it into a three part harmony.
“I think it speaks very strongly of the shared experience of all healthcare workers, how they are joined together and continue to support each other. Within the song they reflect on how they work together as a tribe, the need for connection and how their voices blend while suggesting there is hope. It’s a really nice piece.”
Sadly Ali’s mum died on March 1st. The original song then took on a greater significance and resonated in a more inclusive way: “Ultimately this song became something so different to how it started out. It was lovely from a collaborative perspective, it was really nice to start from something I had written to move then to the choir bringing it to another level; then the choir director bringing it to another level again. Since then we’ve recorded the song and just last month after it was visually recorded for us by our Medical Photography Department after which it was featured during the virtual Nurse Graduation Ceremony in TUH.”
The Choir eventually got to perform the song together in person in May:
“We performed it outside and it was the first time we heard it in the flesh, in person, all voices together. It was a really emotional experience for everyone, hearing the song and knowing that we had all come together and played a part in writing it. We are delighted that the Heartbeats TUH Choir and our original song will feature next Tuesday in the HSE Staff Christmas Concert.”
Reflecting back on the past few months and the loss of her mum, Ali describes how she was moving across the city from one hospital to another: “I would leave here to head to St Vincent’s to see my mum. My whole role flipped during that journey. I was going in and relying on getting all the necessary information back from the healthcare professionals there who were doing such a good job looking after mum and caring for her, but you could see the struggle everyone was going through.”
Ali also speaks openly and poignantly about the reality of a Covid funeral with only ten attendees allowed:
“It was really difficult, to only have ten people there was heartbreaking. We are a big family. We all have children, mum had grandchildren and great grandchildren. She had sisters and cousins and many more relations and friends and for them to not be part of celebrating her life was awful. She had lived a fantastic life. She was a week off being 93 when she died.
“To give the eulogy in an empty church - it felt like the person wasn’t loved, wasn’t missed. It didn’t matter how many people told you that of course that wasn’t the truth, of course that wasn’t the case. It was how you reacted at the time and how you felt. At the time even though my head was telling me one thing, my heart was very much telling me something else. I needed something, my siblings still needed something. We, perhaps like so many other families, needed a connection with others to put her to rest that is normally processed through the finality of a traditional funeral.”
And in the recent weeks they did just that: “Thankfully last month we gathered to bury mum’s ashes. We had a celebration together, a lunch for her nearest and dearest. And that felt like we had put things back in place again because it has been very strange and very surreal. I would encourage other people to look at it, and consider doing something similar. A lot of people said they might do that when they lost a loved one during Covid. And the way I feel about it now – it’s never too late to celebrate a loved one’s life. It is very cathartic and celebration is really important.”
Christmas of course is difficult, the family are finalising the details around their mum’s house (Ali’s dad died a number of years ago). “It feels like an avalanche – it just feels like there are more and more elements of grief to handle. And that’s tougher than I thought and tougher than I expected. But it is all part of it. And I know that.”
Her choirs however, have been fundamental to what has sustained her: “One of the things that has been a saving grace has been being involved with people in either choir who understand and who get it. It’s just that sense that you have when you start singing that everything else goes away – you can’t sing and think of something else. You are in the moment – you’re very present. You’re vocalising something that’s coming from within and you are listening to other voices blending together. For me it’s the whole wellbeing aspect of being in a choir.”
Looking forward to Tuesday Ali adds:
“We added in some vox pops – some comments from some of our members as well. Just saying what they like about singing in a choir. Everybody feels the same and of course everybody too likes the social aspect, the camaraderie, the health benefits, the enjoyment. So even when we couldn’t be with people, we still managed to connect. And there is something very special about connecting through music and then in particular through a choir. Each choir has a unique ingredient. What I have with Heartbeats TUH Choir is different to what I have with the Frontline Choir and its different again to when we sang with the HSE Health Voices Choir. It’s all completely unique and it really is very positive and very upbeat.”
Their song ‘One Heartbeat’ will be a poignant contribution next week at the HSE Health and Wellbeing Staff Christmas Concert.
You can register now to watch the many varying performances and contributions at the HSE Health and Wellbeing Staff Christmas Concert on Tuesday, 21 December from 4.30pm to 5.30pm.