‘I bring you with reverent hands the books of my numberless dreams’ – W B Yeats
‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’ – Eleanor Roosevelt
On Monday I was at an academic discourse at the University of Leeds. I checked my emails on my phone and read an email entitled ‘Professor Aidan Halligan’. The message broke the news that Aidan Halligan had died suddenly. I was hit by a deep sadness and sense of shock. It was as if a glass screen had descended around me. I could see mouths move and hear words but I couldn’t connect with what was going on around me. I felt a deep sense of loss and the world at that moment and evening seemed a poorer and darker place. Over the next days those two words ‘saddened’ and ‘shocked’ were used again and again by friends and colleagues to sum up how they were feeling.
Aidan Halligan held many posts. He was Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the NHS, university professor, director of Well North and the chair of Pathway. I met Aidan a few years ago at a meeting of Pathway in London. Pathway is the national network of homeless health services. I spoke on the model of care we use at York Street Health Practice in Leeds based on hope and being alongside others. After the talk Aidan came over to introduce himself and that’s how we met. Aidan taught or maybe re-taught me many things. In his honour I would like to mention three of the lessons this good man shared with me. I hope – I really hope – I can still hear and practice them.
The first lesson was the commitment to people. Everything Aidan did was about making things better for others. The work to create caring hospital pathways for homeless people. The work in Well North to change poor health in the north of England for communities. His leadership work to support values and courage. All this was about putting people first. The day after I received the news of Aidan’s passing I got a call from a colleague who manages a third sector homeless service. He said he wanted to pass on his condolences to his NHS colleagues who were at that time in a sad place. I was so touched by this kindness. He went on to say he had only met Aidan once but the memory had stayed with him. It had inspired him. Another good Third Sector housing support colleague emailed with a similar kind message – the one meeting that made a deep lasting impression. Aidan connected with people. Aidan connected because Aidan cared. People felt that and remembered the experience. There was a Maya Angelou aspect to Aidan, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Aidan called us to always put people at the centre of our work and plans. He wanted to create large scale change that could really benefit people.
The second lesson was about catching. When I spoke at that meeting in London I saw Aidan writing things down. In subsequent meetings a phrase or sentence would lead to Aidan taking a small notebook from his pocket and writing down the words. He seemed to be catching words, ideas and dreams. Perhaps many of us do this in different ways. Aidan seemed to be systematic about it. Not allowing any good thought or quote to fall into the ether. Rather to collect and fuse them into plans, visions and actions. Behind this was a belief in the innate wisdom of people. Aidan was open to everyday wisdom and I am sure found it in a thousand unexpected places. He then reflected it back into meetings, teaching and writing. He teaches us how we should be open to others and their wisdom – often echoing from their experience and intuitive depths. I remember how in Manchester at a meeting he shared how a nurse in A and E had taught him so much about what compassion was as she cared for and valued the homeless people who attended the hospital she worked in. Aidan didn’t pretend to have all the answers. He did, I believe, see those answers as living in our co-work, collaboration and in listening to people.
The last lesson is that Aidan looked deep. He knew the value of systems, structures, data and academic rigour. He certainly knew how to build and shape organisations. He knew how to generate the discourse and actions that lead to real lasting change. Aidan also knew about what people needed. He had a deep gaze into the human person and journey. Last year we sat in a coffee shop in Leeds talking. Aidan’s words express his depth. He said that life is all about identity. Finding out who and what we are. Aidan said it was when we find ourselves that everything fits and starts to work. His words made sense of my own life and journey. It also actually fits all those psychological categories of ‘integration’, ‘individuation’ and ‘self actualisation’. Aidan saw how values, gifts and our deepest self are so key. He also knew that it is when we tap into these living streams of energy and potency that we become fully alive and life somehow becomes new.
Someone once said that if we stand on the shoulders of giants we can see for miles. Aidan was a giant. He called us – beckoned us – to come and see what he saw. Many of us did. He showed us how cities and services working together can make a difference. How caring pathways can be built for the most vulnerable of our people. And perhaps most importantly that we can be the writers and makers of our dreams. Goodbye Aidan and thank you for everything. We will continue that fight for social justice, kind care and being who we are at our best. That is your legacy and message. We want it be ours too.
( A special thank you to wonderful midwife Deirdre Munro (@DeirdreMunro) for sharing the Yeats quote )