I thought about what to discuss in my blog and have kept coming back the word friendship.

It is almost 12 months to the day that I was sat in Heathrow airport waiting for a flight to Brazil looking at thousands of people arriving and departing the UK. I waited for my flight, watching the television, its subtitles reporting the worsening situation in China, wondering if my fellow passenger, who had a medical N95 Respirator on the top of their head, was wearing a new infection control method that was still in peer review.

The trip to Brazil was to plan and start fieldwork in a remote part of Brazil to deploy Digital Health, to diagnose and manage Hypertensive patients. I applied for a grant with my colleague Prof Tom Ribeiro, a Cardiologist based at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, one of our University Partners and a WUN member institution.

Tom and I met through a chance introduction from Prof Myron Christodoulides (who I equally found by chance in faculty), who was hosting Tom as a Visiting Dimond Jubilee Fellow. The 30-minute planned hello meeting turned into a very long animated conversation about Tom’s telehealth programme. Tom immediately invited me to visit and, two weeks later, I was in Brazil,  giving the keynote at the UFMG and Hospital annual conference. Tom asked for a 45-minute talk!!! “It’s normal”, he explained, I concatenated four PowerPoint presentations together and bought a new tie for the talk!

Tom and I have been good friends ever since, and I have been fortunate to meet his lovely family and enjoyed many happy times with them over good food and with much laughter. I have the greatest of respect for his humility and good humour and he is a prominent judge of good character.

My overseas LMIC Colleagues (low-middle income countries) are always, asking about the other work that I am doing with colleagues around the world, asking after my colleagues, even those they never meet, when sometimes I am the only common link between them. I talk about them with affection. It struck me that I have colleagues in many places worldwide, countries rich and poor, that have guided me to get involved in the best and most desperate conditions of their health systems. They are some of the most hardworking dedicated researchers and clinicians, and those closest to me have invited me into their homes and introduced me to their families while I have been away a long way from my own home.

International work may sound exciting, even glamorous, but can be incredibly lonely. Hotels are no fun. These friends and colleagues are extended family and become fantastic and enthusiastic partners to work alongside.

As country borders started to close worldwide, I returned from Brazil, and quickly numbers of COVID cases in the UK grew. We all started working from home and then TEAMS!!! and I bet many of you had not heard of Teams till 2020. I had never met some of the people who began to contact me seeking advice about where they could get hold of clinical data to understand this pandemic. The numbers of new people I met every day just grew and grew, from all over the University and Hospital, a symptom of our new working methods?

Interestingly,  “new” colleagues I met were people within the faculty and broader university, some of whom I knew by name but never really together worked closely. We started to tackle considerable challenges, least, not the Southampton Saliva Testing Programme, which I am sure most of you are aware. I should make a note to Keith Godfrey, Paul Roderick and Hazel Inskip: we should have been working together for years!

To get through all these endless teams’ meetings, we have all got to know each other very well and have, I would say, turned into close colleagues and friends. We made light-hearted jokes on never-ending teams’ meetings, yelling “KitKat” every time someone left their virtual hand up or talked while on mute, a tally to publicly record a fine of chocolate, to be paid in full when we can all meet in person again.

In a rare moment early in the pandemic, Tom and I took the time to talk about the pandemic in Brazil, to catch up on a plan to delay aspects of our research grant as Brazil went into lockdown and importantly, to check on each other’s family and health. During that call, I talked about the Southampton testing programme and the worsening situations in hospitals that I had heard from friends in Africa to Asia. One stands in my mind in a call from a friend “they are dying, but apparently according to our government COVID is not here.”

It struck me that these friends I am so lucky to work with are all very similar. What would happen if I introduced them all to each other? Would they get on? What could we achieve? Would they all to become friends with each other and work as a “big Clinical, Public Health, Digital family”?

I suggested my idea of bringing my clinical digital friends together to Tom, “Why not try it” he replied. So in August, I tested my hypothesis and hosted two separate meetings of a very multidisciplinary group of friends and colleagues. One to talk about Digital Health and Non-Communicable Diseases. The other about Blast Injury. These meetings continued, friends then invited their friends and so on. In these online forums over the last six months, we have met regularly to talk through ideas and write grant applications. Interestingly these new friends are all working together, arrange working parties’ follow-up meetings of groups work, quite spontaneously and without planning.

In all these meetings,   we got to know new people, made new partnerships and more importantly, new friends. Additionally, I had seen colleagues showing a real increase in care for one another, a mindful and pastoral relationship with colleagues. Closer to home, my team who are all great friends in work and out, have been even more evident, through messages and conversations they have online and in their WhatsApp group, and the weekly quiz has been heartfelt, honest and supportive.

Our international Clinical Fellows returned to Sri Lanka They remained in conversation socially with the department, with news of their new clinical jobs and families that they had been away from for over a year.

As one of the new Associate Deans of International, a role I share with Ruihua, international partnerships is one of our key focus areas that we want to strengthen, both for existing relationships and to make new ones. We want you to be a part of that effort.

The importance of friendship, personally and professionally, is commonplace in some cultures with the greeting “My friend James, how are you?” or introduction “this is our friend James from Southampton University”. The relationships we build, through our communication and actions are essential with our international partners. When building diplomacy, take a moment to think about the times you have been cared for by international colleagues, friends.

I hope internationally, as a faculty and broader university, we can all continue to benefit from the joy of working with old friends and finding new ones along the way, tackling together the complex challenges that are critical to our planet’s future.

Friendship and research by Professor James Batchelor

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