Epidemiology at 50: Thinking about what matters

LSHTM logoIt has been eight months since my last post, which I wrote when I was about to dive into the intense exam prep period of my second year in the MSc epidemiology distance learning program. Exams for my three classes (EPM303, epidemiology of non-communicable diseases, EPM202, Statistical Methods in Epidemiology, and EPM304, Advanced Statistical Methods in Epidemiology) went well, helped by the fact that I’d gone through LSHTM exams once already and knew what to expect. The basics—create a realistic exam prep schedule and stick to it, do a dry run to the exam center so you know where it is and how long it takes to get there, and sleep well the night before—were no different. The only thing that had changed was that I parenthetically turned 50 the day before the first exam.

As soon as exams were over, I had to tackle my fourth class, EPM201 (Study Design: Wwriting a Grant Application), for which there is no exam, only a written assignment. I had intended to work really hard and submit the assignment a whole month early, on July 31, so as to enjoy the month of August completely study-free with my family. My research work and taking care of the kids during the summer slowed me down, though, so I found myself at the end of July scrambling to finish.

On July 28, 2014, however, my younger sister (and only sibling) Alyson Marie Hopkins died suddenly at age 49. I’m just now “taking up my pen” to complete this blogpost.

Tragedy is very clarifying. I know this from my experience as the bereaved mother of a stillborn son, Wilder Daniel (July 13, 1999). You see immediately what matters and what does not matter. What mattered in July was that I fly to my parents’ side to unite with them in grief and to immerse myself in the many chores of grief. Telling people. Arranging a service. Cooking for my parents. Sharing coffee in the early sleepless mornings. Cleaning my sister’s apartment. Bidding farewell to her.

What did not matter was studying. At all. At some point I realized I would not be able to make the EPM201 deadline. Skipping the class entirely this year would be a big challenge for my family, as it would literally postpone by an entire year the awarding of my degree and any possibility of next steps (eg a job). I emailed the course director to tell her what had happened and to request an extension. I was braced for rejection—perhaps due to lack of precedent, or rules to ensure fair treatment—or a lengthy period of waiting to hear back.

I was instead almost overwhelmed by the warm and fundamentally human response I received. My request was swiftly and compassionately granted. My parents found space inside their grief to be grateful for the kindness shown to me.

Months later as we enter the holiday season, the grief has changed and retreated within, but as we who have known loss know, it is still there, just gradually being accommodated as we re-orient to the new reality.

I have begun my third and final year of the MSc with as much pleasure as I experienced the last two years. I am taking one final elective, EPM301 (Epidemiology of Communicable Diseases), as well as the comprehensive exam (EPM400) and the project (EPM500), which I have been looking forward to with great anticipation since 2012. I am also thinking a lot about whether to go on for a doctorate in epidemiology—a big decision in any case, but additionally challenging as I weigh the opportunity cost of postponing employment yet again, and the cost to my family, with three adolescent boys.

I started this course because epidemiology represented, for me, the perfect overlap between the personal (perinatal bereavement) and the professional (my work on poverty issues). That is still true, but now in perhaps an altered way. My sister suffered from severe mental illness her whole adult life, in the form of schizoaffective disorder, a noxious union of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as far as I can tell. Even before she died, I found myself drawn to the epidemiology of mental illness. Perhaps there is another strand to weave into my future.

I know there are many who enter this holiday season with loss. Wishing you all fellowship and peace.

Susannah is studying the MSc Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine through the University of London International Programmes. She lives in the USA.

2 Responses to Epidemiology at 50: Thinking about what matters

  1. Elawp says:

    I cannot personally comprehend the exact nature of such a terrifying loss. All I can offer are condolences and good wishes; tragedy is indeed clarifying, though the sheer magnitude of grief is unimaginable.
    I am very pleased with the response you received from the University, it is very reassuring to know that the basic strand of humanity- of empathy in difficult times- exists within educational institutions.

    I find it quite inspiring frankly- that you have managed to tie together such great losses, as a way to better comprehend and connect with Epidemiology. There is passion born of inquisitiveness, then there is passion arising from experience. I cannot pretend to know which one is stronger; but I can say that the latter is something very few are able to achieve and carry on.

    Best of luck for the rest of your studies, I hope you are able to somehow make a difference through the combination of personal experiences and this degree!


  2. Mark says:

    Thank you for your honesty in this post. I’m not a student yet but considering this MSc by distance learning. I worried how it might fit into my hope to safe-guard my family (wife and three young children) as I work in Papua New Guinea. Hearing that you were able to run this race with a family, and complete it despite a tragedy, reassures me – and speaks toward your perseverance.

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