AN ANAESTHETIC Practitioner who went viral in May with his photos of life in the fight against coronavirus at Abergavenny's Nevill Hall Hospital has shared his story of a whirlwind few months.

David Collyer, from Abergavenny, who experienced the elation of his photography at Nevill Hall making the front page of The Guardian and being shared all around the world in May, had a breakdown less than a month later following a diagnosis of cancer.

Mr Collyer, aged 53 and a father to two teenage boys, who has since written blogs about his cancer battle, says he has learned a great deal since March about the importance of living his life with perspective.

“I started working at Nevill Hall in June 2017, and I’d been taking photographs for a long time before then,” he said.

“We knew a lot of systems and personnel would be transferring to the Grange (the new hospital near Cwmbran), and my aim was to spend this year taking photographs of that transition, to share with colleagues.

“I never once thought I’d make a book or be on the front page of any newspaper – let alone the Guardian.”

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When the pandemic hit the UK and lockdown began at the end of March, Mr Collyer turned his attention to documenting the hospital’s battle against the virus.

“A couple of photos were leaked on social media and someone I know well in the publishing industry asked if I wanted to share them in a magazine.

“I was open to it and sent him the pictures, but he came back to me after he’d seen them and said we needed to do a book.

“Within three weeks we had received our first orders, and our first batch sold out in 24 hours.”

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His book – a collection of photographs titled All In A Day’s Work – was an attempt to shine a light on the reality of how people on the frontline contended with the virus.

“I thought it was a story that needed telling, and I called it All In A Day’s Work because I felt uncomfortable with how NHS workers were being worshipped – at times in an almost crass way.

“I wanted to depict the reality of the struggles, and I wanted to hold a mirror up to show who we are.

“We are highly trained people who get paid to do a good day’s work, and we get on with it despite being systematically failed.

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“You can’t do it unless you have a good sense of humour and take everything in your stride. You need to be able to compartmentalise things.”

One thousand copies have already been sold, and the work was to be shared on the front page of a leading national newspaper, with a double spread inside.

Recalling the day of the feat, he said: “I knew it was going to be in the Guardian online, they found out about my work and asked me to submit photos and a short piece, and told me it might make print, but I didn’t think it would be on the front.

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“I was cycling to work and stopped at Bailey’s Garage in Abergavenny, and it hit me straight away. I nearly fell off my bike.

“I took every copy I could manage to carry, and phoned my father – who was a journalist and a newspaper editor.

“When I told him I’d made the front he thought I meant the Abergavenny Chronicle. When I told him it was the Guardian he spat his cornflakes out.”

Since then photographers which Mr Collyer considers inspirations have been in touch to praise him for his work.

Leading British photographer David Hurn recently invited him for lunch and hailed his work the best he’d seen on the pandemic.

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“I was gobsmacked – I have their books on my shelf and now I’m going around their houses for lunch," he said. “People have been so kind, everyone in the photography circuit I’ve spoken to over the last few months has wanted to help me up the ladder.”

But the period of positivity was horribly stifled when – in early June – he was told he had bladder cancer.

“I had symptoms on and off for a while, but was told to take antibiotics and I’d probably get better," he said.

“I never did and knew as it persisted I might have a real issue.

“It was awful – it hits you really hard but it’s afterwards that’s the hardest. It doesn’t leave you.

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“The only time I forget about it is when I’m behind a camera.”

The tumour was removed ten days after the diagnosis, but as it is a high-grade cancer he has been told it is likely to return, and he will have to have checks every three months.

“When you work in hospitals it’s easy to look at an operation as a fix – but it’s often just the start," he said.

“I was so rough for a month afterwards. I went through stages of being very positive, and then I’d have one or two days of being terrified.

“I made the mistake of Googling my diagnosis, and I broke down.

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“I’m now back at work, and I’m feeling quietly optimistic. I am trying to compartmentalise things and deal with any health issues when they arise.”

He believes working in a hospital during a pandemic has helped him to deal with his diagnosis.

“I have always been somewhat pragmatic about life and death," he said. "Perhaps it comes from an early age, as my grandfather had motor neurone disease.

“Working in a hospital you realise your grip on mortality is tenuous. Most days I see people in terrible positions.

“I know it sounds silly – but I often consider myself lucky to have had the diagnosis. Looking back, there are parts of the process I’ve enjoyed. It has taught me a hell of a lot about myself and made me a lot more focused on what I want to do with my photography.

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“It’s made me understand myself, how I tick, and how I respond to difficult situations.”

His blog, in which he asks “It’s gotta be someone, so why not me?”, was started with the intention of helping men to speak openly about cancer and wellbeing.

“I have always liked to make quirky observations about life. I wanted to capture how I felt, and share my problems.

“Middle-aged men are notoriously bad at coming to terms with their issues. I thought the blog could be a good way share humorous stories about my cancer journey, but also to be as brutally honest as I could.

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“I asked ‘why not me’ because I see so many ill people every day – so why not me? It can happen to anyone. Your life can turn at the flip of a coin.

“I’m no use to anyone sat down and feeling sorry for myself. I fully intend to accept it and keep moving forward.”

You can visit Mr Collyer’s blog to read his musings on cancer, photography and other things at