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Applause at the Royal Festival Hall for inspirational Covid patient

Covid patient Professor Peter Johnstone sings in a new choral work, inspired by the life-saving care he had at Addenbrooke's.

Bach Choir
The Bach Choir with Prof Peter Johnstone performing at the Royal Festival Hall

On Sunday, a special concert was held at the Royal Festival Hall featuring the world premiere of a new choral work, originated by Peter Johnstone, a professor at Cambridge University.

The work draws on his fragmented memories of weeks spent in hospital, fighting for his life, in the first wave of the pandemic.

During that time Peter – the first Covid patient to be admitted to Addenbrooke’s Neurosciences and Trauma Critical Care Unit (NCCU) - needed ventilation, tracheostomy, kidney dialysis and proning.

Often unconscious, he was cared for 24 hours a day by hundreds of doctors, nurses, physios and health care support workers.

Diaries written by the nursing staff about his daily care were the inspiration for the choral work.

Professor Peter Johnstone - picture by Nordin Ćatić
Professor Peter Johnstone

It feels like it's come full circle and today gives us closure

Erika Sahagun, critical care nurse

Erika Sahagun was one of the many who cared for Peter and was at the concert.

She was joined by around 30 other staff from Addenbrooke's who were all asked to stand up to receive a round of applause from the whole auditorium, around two thousand people.

Speaking after the concert she said:

"It feels like it's come full circle. Coming to this concert and seeing Peter sing on stage gives us closure. Thank you Peter for giving us this."

Jubilee Gardens
The Jubilee Garden at Addenbrooke's hospital

The piece, called ‘Vision of a Garden’, was written by award-winning composer Richard Blackford and commissioned by the world-leading chorus, The Bach Choir.

Named after Addenbrooke's Jubilee Garden, where Peter was taken during his recovery, 'Vision of a Garden' was the centre-piece of the two hour concert, alongside music from the Philharmonia Orchestra and the NHS Chorus-19 choir.

Written in six movements, the piece documents Peter’s journey through intensive care, the rehabilitation ward, and finally back home.

Excerpt from the solo text:

“It is two months since I left hospital.

I’m back for a follow-up visit.

A nurse gives me diaries of my time in ICU.

Reading them I am overwhelmed with love

For these people I never knew,

Who only knew me as a bundle of symptoms.

And finally I know that the garden was not a dream!"

I feel strongly that my survival places an obligation on me to tell the story of what I went through

Prof Peter Johnstone

As a member of the choir, Peter also sang in the concert.

He described the diaries as the “most heart-warming documents I’ve ever read.” He added:

“I feel strongly that my survival places an obligation on me to tell the story of what I went through, and telling it in music is a natural way for me to do that.”

Peter has also commissioned a film, called ‘The ICU Diaries’, which includes Addenbrooke’s staff reading passages from the diaries. Led by film maker Kate McMullen with London production company Bold, it’s expected to be hosted on Vimeo and be shown at film festivals.