Facing the fallibility of the human body

Wednesday 8 September I had woken up reminding myself to chat to Anson for tips on having an MRI, as I was scheduled for one the next day. Anson was the ideal person to reach out to – not only had he experienced his fair share of MRIs over the past year following his diagnosis with head and neck cancer, but he is also a dear friend, colleague and mentor. Professor Anson Mackay was one of my three PhD supervisors, and based at UCL, he was my primary point of contact during the split site component of my PhD that I had spent at the Environmental Change Research Centre at UCL in their Geography department. Since completing my PhD, Anson has become my most valued mentor, an enthusiastic research collaborator, and really a very dear friend. 

As someone who is far more comfortable hiding away from fear than facing it, I managed to ‘forget’ to contact Anson throughout that day. The idea popped into my head every once in a while, only to be squashed by the next conference talk that I hopped onto Zoom for; I was in the middle of the SSAG/SAAG Conference that week, presenting two papers, and mentoring a large group of my postgraduate students who were presenting for the first time at an academic conference. I didn’t even think I had that much to fear – the MRI, MRA and Doppler were very much a precaution to rule out anything sinister. I have struggled with my thyroid this year. I have an autoimmune thyroid condition – Hashimotos thyroiditis, which is treated by replacing the thyroid hormones that are under-produced by your body. At the beginning of January, these thyroid levels were being quite dramatically over-replaced through over-medication and an acute thyroiditis, resulting in a range of unpleasant symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Following the subsequent reduction of my dose of thyroid replacement hormones when this was detected, it took about 3 months to reach normal range, and a further 3 months to start to feel myself again. The first three months coincided with the very stressful preparation and teaching of an all-online module to our first years, as the second wave of COVID-19 was in full force. There was no time for sick leave, and I just pushed through, one day at a time. Back to the present, at the 9-month mark I was still struggling with occasional dizziness, and hence it made sense to do an MRI (and MRA and doppler of the carotid artery) to check that there wasn’t anything more sinister behind it. I was largely convinced there was not. 

I saw Anson’s name pop up in my inbox that evening – and as I saw it, I remembered again to ask him for tips. His email, although partly discussing possible projects and PhD cosupervision, was also letting me know that the CT scan he’d recently had showed abnormalities. My heart sank. He was still optimistic in that email that it could be a red herring, and gave me some really excellent advice on how to stay calm in an MRI. 

I did manage to stay calm, and thank goodness the MRI, MRA and doppler came back clear. I did wonder briefly, while lying in the MRI, whether my productivity and success was perhaps just an Amelia Sheppard-type brain tumour (Grey’s Anatomy fans would understand). Fortunately not. Anson, however, was not as lucky. After fighting and overcoming neck cancer in 2020, and subsequently running multiple ultramarathons, he has just been diagnosed with a new primary cancer – this time of the lungs. I received a text from him to let me know last week, shortly before he started publishing on his cancer blog again. The news is devastating. To me personally, but also because I can only just begin to understand what this has felt like for him and his partner David. I am scared – one of the most important and influencial people in my life has cancer for a second time; this time far more difficult to treat, and so he’s looking at what life with cancer will look like, rather than the path to eradicate it. We have so many projects planned, projects that involve helicopter trips to South Africa’s highest peak, road trips through Lesotho to collect samples, and so much data to analyse. I have so much still to learn from Anson – about diatoms and isotopes, about academia, and about life. I need to keep reminding myself that I will still have time to learn from Anson, we just might need to both pace ourselves a bit better.

It also all feels so terribly unfair. Anson has run ultramarathons in the past 18 months! The feeling of illness being unfair is one I feel in relation to Anson’s diagnosis and my own health challenges – a year ago I was pushing myself too hard, working long hours, taking on too much, and struggling to effectively handle stress. All very standard in academia, and indeed often glamourised. I had been doing this my whole life. It is no surprise then that I would eventually have had to face the fallibility of my own health, and at the beginning of the year it was scary not understanding what was wrong and whether this was all just my thyroid. However, 9 months later I have taken a 5-month sabbatical (albeit still a busy one with many research deadlines, and commitments to various societies), gone on at least a 2km each day (most days 3.5km, some days 8km), developed a better sleep cycle, reduced my workload to something a little bit more manageable, started doing Yoga regularly, and eaten a more balanced diet. Yet I still struggle with my health fairly often; I still don’t quite feel myself as reliably as I used to, and can’t just push myself to handle the next thing that lands on my plate. It feels unfair – I am taking things slowly, I am paying attention to my health, and I still don’t feel quite right. I don’t know how to feel that way again, and while I do want to feel reliably healthy, perhaps I shouldn’t want or aspire to go back to doing every and anything. 

Life throws curveballs at us, and the lessons aren’t always clear. Sometimes bad news is just bad news, and if this year has taught me anything, it is to sit with the fear, the loss, the devastation and just feel it. As difficult as that is. And then learn – how to make work more sustainable, how to enjoy each day, and how to become the best parts of the people I most look up to.

THE MORE YOU GIVE, THE MORE YOU RECEIVE

I was walking with my dog this morning and listening to one of Simon Sinek’s podcasts. Among the amazing things he usually says, he described the most profound thing. When he was on a mission worrying about himself and only him, concerned about his challenges and aspirations only, he was always stressed and tensed and anxiety was taking over. Based on some observations, he decided to change his own narrative and see things from another perspective: every task, action he takes and thought should be for the benefit of the team, or the group, or the family or the society overall. That was when he found a sense of calmness of purpose and meaning in his life…and in a sense, happiness.

“Hey that’s me” I thought, and almost started chatting with my dog….

Going back and looking at my involvement with “my acronyms”, I feel that the turning point was when my dear friend Prof Aliza Le Roux asked me to take over the Editor’s position at the SAYAS blog. Until then, my fixed mindset directed me to only be involved in things that will beneficial for ME and MY career. I had never thought of helping with the blog before for two main reasons: 1) to my mind (wrongly…), an editor needs to be a language expert, and 2) selfishly (and wrongly again…) what was in it for me? I could contribute with my blogs every now and then, what more?

But when the offer was made during one of our AGM’s breaks at Fort Hare University, I had a revelation similar to Simon Sinek’s. I went back to the initial reasons I decided to get involved with SAYAS: to work on providing a voice to young scientists and students. Here was my chance to do so and I grabbed it. Admittedly, I had no idea at the time what I was getting into (as with most of the things I decided to take on later on in my journey in SAYAS and GYA), but Aliza’s mentorship and assistance in the beginning made me stronger.

So, what did I give in my years as a SAYAS Blog editor? I gave time, positive energy and direction – that was all the blogging teams needed from my side. But the multiplier effect was present in this case and I am giving over the Blog to Prof Jennifer Fitchet being a “richer” person (the only thing that could not be retuned multiplied was time…oh well…)

I worked with three teams of bloggers, and I must say I learned many things from all of them, due to their diversity of backgrounds, visions, cultures and demographics. They all helped me develop soft skills like team, time and project management.

I have changed as a mentor by:

  • Firstly, listening to them, even before they put things on “paper”: the things that concern PhD students in South Africa, the challenges they face, the way they think about current societal topics, how they see the future of their science, what they appreciate, and what they expect from their mentors and supervisors and others. They managed to give me a holistic picture of a postgraduate student today, and in doing so they helped me with how I work with the students I supervise.
  • Secondly, helping them edit their pieces and strengthen their arguments, I realized what things I should change in the way I write blogs and papers.
  • Thirdly, learning the relevant ways on how to give feedback, many times I used the famous PPCO approach (Pluses Potentials Concerns Opportunities) without they even realizing I was doing so, and other times, just by asking them questions. 

I have managed to identify and succeed some of my objectives as an academic citizen of the world working with the team of the SAYAS blog:

  • Through the blog, we as SAYAS fulfil our role as an organization that provides a safe platform to young academics and students to express themselves. We did that during the 2016 #feesmustfall protests and the 2020 #blacklivesmatter and #covid19pandemic, as just some of the examples. Indeed, we have given a voice to the youth.
  • We have started preparing the next generation of scientists to be open-minded and change the way science communication is viewed by older generations of scientists. A generation that will further inspire more, not only through their research but also through their communication skills, and developing into the role models of the future (the multiplier effect in action here again).
  • We have raised important issues to education and science policymakers – not that they did not know, but formalizing the voice made the difference.
  • We have created a community and a feeling of belonging for students in South Africa while highlighting the common challenges and happy moments they all face making others feel that they are not alone.

The SAYAS blog does not stop with me of course and it is indeed hard to let go. It is hard and emotional as when a child leaves their parents’ house. It is time for it to take the next step to the future and evolve as it always does. And although it is generally believed that only parents give to their kids, I am the living example that the child has taught me a lot and changed me so much. Would I do it again? Without a doubt, YES!!!

Certainly, the most important lesson is that it is more important to do things for the greater good, it is more rewarding and the multiplier effect kicks in -maybe not immediately- but in the long run, even the personal benefits are immense.

So, goodbye….for now….

And remember, the more you contribute, the more you benefit 😉