Earlier this year we were introduced to the surgery worker who was documenting life on Covid wards in a Welsh hospital – around a month later he was diagnosed with cancer.
It has been a whirlwind of a year for David Collyer whose life as a photographer changed dramatically when his photographs taken at Nevill Hall Hospital were shared over the UK and the world.
At the time, Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, who David works, for faced some incredibly tough challenges.
The 53-year-old felt he had the ability to really document these changes at the hospital in Abergavenny.
His role as a operating department practitioner (ODP) specialises in anaesthetics, which means he is able to access areas that many people don’t see.
And not just the public, but also other members of staff.
One of his images was later used on the front page of the Guardian and was subsequently selected as one of the best photos of the year by a leading photography magazine.
British photographer David Hurn also branded David’s work as the best Covid-related work he’d seen.
But, while life was taking so many unexpected turns in one way, he discovered his health had been changing in another.
In June David was told he had bladder cancer.
Speaking about how he felt at the time, David said: “I didn’t feel unwell at all. I was just passing blood in urine. The first time it happened was about two years ago – it didn’t happen again for the best part of 16 months.
“I was told that I had cancer in my bladder. I went from being the health care professional to being the patient. I was off work for six weeks.
“The only time I felt ill was post-operative – I just felt like crawling up into a ball and dying.”
Luckily David was able to access health care and have the tumour removed, but he said the cancer is something he will now have to deal with for the rest of his life.
He will need to go back for regular checks to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned or spread in any way.
However he hasn’t returned to working on the Covid-19 wards since he’s been back.
David was keen to share his experiences to enable other people, and men, to feel more comfortable with talking about their health and their emotions.
For this reason he started blogging about it.
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In the blog David said there is a “great deal of discussion over the language used around cancer.”
He went onto write: “I don’t want to hear people sounding awkward when they talk to me.
“I’d rather they didn’t pussyfoot around me. I’m still me. Spades remain spades.
“I don’t have the ”Big C’. It’s not ‘my illness’. It’s highly likely to be cancer and I’m going to fight it.”
This sheer sense of optimism and positivity shines through the most when you talk to him.
Opening up about some of his experiences in the blog, David said:
“We are living through crazy times.
“Covid-19 swept in around four months ago, pushing everything out of its way, tossed aside on a bow wave of pandemic and a psychological burial of all other maladies.
“But underneath those choppy seas, life goes on, perhaps as normal, perhaps not.
“My journey didn’t start with a piece of cotton wool taped to my arm where a nurse had taken blood samples.
“There were telltale signs that brought me to this point.
“The blown blood vessels in one eye, probably as a result of tiredness and a spike in blood pressure indicate that even health care professionals feel the stress when they find themselves on the other side of the divide. A salient lesson in empathy.
“The green bag containing literature and specimen pots, as well as the ‘Oh so now!’
“Covid swabs are just a part of what I’m about to go through, but I know all this of course, because it’s what I do for a living.
“This time I’m not getting paid however. I’m the punter.
“The patient. The customer.
“The frightened rabbit being pushed into a room full of strangers. My future in their hands.
“I wrote recently in the intro to my book ‘All in a Day’s Work’ of the strains of working in PPE.
“I said that we all worry about our kidneys because of dehydration.
“I certainly worried about mine.
“The dull ache in my mid back, the discoloured urine, the family history of kidney stones.
“Fate twists and fate turns.
“It turned out that I worried about my kidneys unnecessarily.
“Undressing in front of strangers is never fun.
“When they examine you with ultrasound, stern faced, and then insert a camera into you its even less fun.
“I’m a photographer.
“I prefer to be behind the camera, not enveloping it!
“The words we’ve found an abnormality stay with you I’m sure.
“My experience of looking inside other people’s bladders during many years in operating theatres gives me a heads up.
“There was the abnormality, looking like the type of multi-fronded plant or creature that you see clinging to the side of a rock pool, alarmingly magnified, there in plain view. A tumour.”
David said: “I want people to be able to understand what it feels like – especially speaking as a man – to be be able to talk about different things.
“Being able to talk about your emotions, your feelings and your health. I wanted to show people this is what you go through, and these are the emotions.”
Speaking about his health now, he added: “If you looked at me you’d never know I’m a cancer patient.
“I’m still really fit. I walk miles. I’m a very fit 50-something.”
After his photographs gained such attention earlier this year, David went onto create a book called All In A Day’s Work.
The book very quickly sold out due to the attention he received from the media.
It has already sold out three print runs and is going to be now released as a hardback soon.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he stopped shooting for a while, but he’s hoping to return to make another project when he can.
When asked about what the situation has been like on Covid wards during the second wave, David said: “It’s still a problem, but we are changing the way we treat patients now.
“There are ways we have been able to look at situations from around the world, and how people have been treated in different ways.
“Staff are still stressed, but it doesn’t feel like it did the last time, but we are looking at it from a very different view now.”
To find out more about David’s photography, or to ask him any further questions, contact him via his Instagram page.