An Early Thanksgiving: 18 Pieces of Gratitude

This year, and this day, have shown me how lucky I am. Here are 18 reasons why, excluding the ultimate gifts of sustenance, shelter, education, and good health.

I am grateful for:

Original Tabasco sauce. It’s a culinary staple in any household I occupy, and variations of the classic don’t come close. These tiny bottles can keep for five years, but I never know how to store them. A reasonable person would put theirs in the fridge, but mine sit in front of my desk lamp. The lamp gathers more dust.

This miraculous two-ingredient hot sauce will be my crutch until I learn to properly season my cooking.

In this metaphor for my torn cultural heritage, I would always choose the baseball-cap-sporting Tabasco. You can have too much oyster sauce.

Grey’s Anatomy. This medical drama set in Seattle has been running for more than 15 years. Its creator, Shonda Rhimes, pioneered a “blind casting” approach that saw a talented troupe of actors diverse in gender, sexuality, race, and ability take the screen. Though my medic colleagues will attest to the show’s numerous inaccuracies, I think it captures well the spirit of being a health practitioner and the struggle to juggle personal and professional responsibilities in the quest to do the “right” thing. Having just started Grey’s 17th season (set in April 2020), I am once again amazed by the showrunners’ ability to capture the humanity of patients and staff alike in a divisive and terrifying environment. It’s worth the hype!

Regent’s Canal. The narrow paths that line this London waterway are occupied by hurried businesspeople carrying their Waitrose hauls, fluent cyclists of every description, and toddlers in hooded parkas. It’s just quiet enough for an afternoon walk, and a special treat when it’s raining so softly you can’t hear the splashes.

The Canal’s colour-splashed moored boats and its green meandering water, which reminds me of the time I tried catching tadpoles in a nature reserve outside the city as a kid, make me smile so much I’m glad I wear a mask everywhere.

R (the programming language). It would’ve been unimaginable to think that my desire to destroy my laptop over a linear regression coding error a year ago would turn into a real appreciation for R. I’ve been using it for my Data Science courses, and it’s a language with a steep learning curve that doesn’t allow a single misplaced punctuation mark. I have to forgive it, though, because it can produce maps like this using its free, open-source software:

Image credit: Timo Grossenbacher

Epigenetics. This recent development in human biology is defined as the study of changes in gene expression rather than in genetic code. Its existence means that we can no longer dismiss the theory that the effects of harmful environmental exposures (e.g. smoking) during one person’s lifetime can be passed down to their grandchildren and adversely affect their health. Rather than being cause for dismay, this can motivate policy change and put pressure on public servants to take responsibility for future generations, too.

Hope for ending the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. Though known primarily as a sexually transmitted disease, HIV significantly challenges global health through mother-to-child, or vertical, transmission. In 2019, 1.5 million pregnant women around the world were living with HIV, and vertical transmission occurred in 15-30% of those cases. However, drugs have been developed targeting this process in utero, during birth, and post-birth. This meant that for the first time last year, there were more averted childhood HIV infections than new ones. Despite our current circumstances, progress in global health is happening every day.

Cohort studies. My first year as a Population Health student introduced me to the 1946, 1958, 1970, and 2000 British birth cohorts, composed of several thousand people who were selected to take part in studies tracing their entire life trajectories. This kind of research has saved lives by evidencing maternal health, lifestyle, and early years interventions, as well as producing large-scale data that is just fascinating (one cohort was asked to write essays about their career plans at age 11). And yes, cohorts like these have faced issues such as survey non-response and a lack of diversity, but recent advances have seen researchers account for both problems. Read more about the progress that continues, especially following COVID-19: source.

Progress on accessibility. More than two decades have passed since landmark disability equal rights legislation was passed in both the UK and US. Though positive change has been gradual and uneven, I notice it in my surroundings. I went to the supermarket last week and saw an employee using sign language with a customer, something so exciting that I struggled to focus on my groceries. I attended a webinar hosted by my university’s Disabled Students’ Network where I learned that school accommodation residents can now request a room with modifications (for example, an accessible bathroom or an en-suite where one was not allocated originally) at no extra cost. This fight was championed by a few dedicated activists whose work will change thousands of lives. This summer gave me a chance to learn more about disability studies, and I am looking forward to furthering my interest this term.

Steadfast leadership and innovation in the fight against COVID-19. Excellence in infectious disease response has been seen everywhere this year, but I am especially grateful for the examples I read about in sub-Saharan Africa. Western media, as it often does, underestimated the ability of low-income countries to control a pandemic that had ravaged richer states. In the meantime, Rwanda employed robots in treatment centres to monitor patient temperatures (source) and Senegal’s ministers pledged one hospital for every coronavirus patient, no matter how symptomatic they were (source).

A world that is examining itself. Though I can’t name all the movements that the turmoil of the past several months have ignited, I am energised and humbled by the spirit of revolution that is changing our lives for the better. I see it in the classroom and on social media feeds that stayed quiet in the past and in private discussions between my peers and in the cardboard-sign-clutching teenagers that walked past my university accommodation a while ago.

The chance to make things easier. This year, mostly through good fortune, I have taken on a variety of roles that involve welcoming new people to my community. I joined two other volunteers on Zoom in October to introduce UCL newcomers to the city of London using slides prepared ten minutes before (I hope at least the sentiment was there). I stood in my flat’s kitchen as freshers moved in and asked how to operate the washing machine, feeling like a sage on the topic of surviving university accommodation. And I am mentoring a handful of first-year students in our department as they go through the same exhilarating process we did last September. My favourite moment so far: when they reciprocate after I ask them how they’re doing.

The arts and the way they lighten the load. I watched my first workshopping of a new musical recently, one written by the director of my school’s spring term “Legally Blonde” production and his good friend (both of them pursuing postgraduate degrees in theatre). Though shown online, the singing was perfectly synced, and the plot, set in 20th century China, was rendered alive by phenomenal (and occasionally bilingual) actors. The experience made me even more glad that I had gone to school with people who were determined to show that the arts are essential.

The capacity to feel completely. I have noticed, in an out-of-character way, that being isolated for several months on end has heightened all the emotions I could have. The sight of a building I had only read about a few feet away, hearing good news about people I had never met, even compiling this disorganised list – these things that inexplicably move me make me a better writer, artist, and friend.

Nairobi vegetable gardens and table tennis tournaments and national park game drives. These are the staples of life back home that I wish I could experience. I am lucky, though, that they exist to occupy my family while we wait for the chance to reunite.

Finally, not mutually exclusive:

The people who have asked if they could help me, served me food, held doors one second longer than needed, or told me my backpack was open (as it always seems to be).

The people who have said “yes” to me, welcomed me as a volunteer or leader or researcher or performer, listened carefully to my ideas, and made me strive for greater excellence.

The people who tell me when I’m being ridiculous, laugh at my jokes because they’re so bad, complain to me about their workload, and show their care without a word.

Health and social care workers. I love following their fictional lives when I’m procrastinating about university work, but I now know some real-life amazing doctors and medical students who have fought for the protection of staff, patients, and the general public. Their work inspired me to publicise an art project I started in March, which you can now find here.

Thank you so much for reading, and I promise to stay more on topic next time. 🙂

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