Advent Calendars and New Year's Resolutions

Advent calendars originated with German Lutherans and counts the days either from Advent Sunday, or more simply, December 1 up to and including Christmas Day. 

For those unfamiliar with the tradition, a rectangular cardboard box, decorated with yuletide scenes, is punctuated by little doors, one for each day. Opening each portal inspires a religious devotion and, nowadays, provides a tasty treat. I was recently with dear friends whose calendar was of a decidedly delicious nature, containing, as it did, chocolates from my favorite confectioner. One was almost tempted to dash ahead and eat through the remaining days of 2020. Given we will all be glad to see the back of 2020, I say why not? As Christmas draws to a close, New Year with its inevitable resolutions looms large. If you think I am going to start by suggesting skipping the chocolates, think again! But maybe the following list might inspire you to come up with your own.

I have been very flattered and humbled to receive compliments for my contributions to the AOPA Pilot magazine and this newsletter (thank you!). But I have also received some fairly abusive correspondence, usually from those who believe that there is no pandemic, that it is a massive conspiracy. As I write this article, I have a friend and colleague supported by a ventilator on an ICU and in critical condition. He is a scientist who has dedicated his life to seeking the truth. And I have lost friends and colleagues to COVID. So, my first chocolate goes to a commitment to be nice to those who try to spread human decency and call out people who do not. Our lives are precious. Treasure them.

During 2020, medicine has leapt ahead in spectacular fashion with new diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines for COVID, Ebola, and other ills that ail us. The Noble prize bestowed on the three wise men who discovered the hepatitis C virus casts an almost heavenly glow; it is a breakthrough that inspired scientists to find ways to detect and treat this silent killer, a topic I covered once before (“Stealing Fire,” AOPA Pilot magazine, October 2011, page 34). So, what about resolving to support a medical charity that connects with your life in some way? Research is hugely expensive and every little bit helps.

In the same vein, literally, please consider becoming a blood donor. Yes, pun intended. During the pandemic supplies of blood and blood products have plummeted as people were uncertain about attending blood drives. This is a resolution to doing something tangible to help your fellow human.

My son recently inspired me to think about writing gratitude lists after he, like so many others, endured some challenges, and the first item I wrote should have been that I am grateful I can now learn from my wise offspring. I have resolved to actively focus on my gratitude list each day. Trust me, it feels good.

Any doctor will tell you that informing a family member that someone they loved has died is so very hard, it never leaves you. Never. And when that death might have been prevented by someone else just wearing a mask is beyond my comprehension. Dr. Ken Ramy is a critical care doctor at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and as such has cared for many COVID patients, and had to intubate a substantial percentage. After going through the trauma of telling a relative sad news he came up with a brilliant idea. Rather than just telling you about it, please, watch this brief video Dr. Ramy made: and tell all your friends and family members to also watch this. Ken, I think you may have saved some lives, and maybe my AOPA readers can do likewise? I dedicate an Advent chocolate to you.

In 1961, aged 29, Jenny Joseph wrote a poem called “Warning.” It starts with the lines:

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple,
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.

It inspired the now famous “red hat society” where ladies go to a social event wearing purple clothes and red hats. I believe the principle is to show disdain and to be a little bit naughty and unconventional. And that is fine. Resolve to do something you neglected to do in your youth. Be slightly unconventional, celebrate you. But people! What is so difficult about keeping your distance in a shop or on the street? It could save your life – or mine. And if I am sick, who is going to look after you when you get sick? No chocolates for you folks! Resolve to follow this rule.

The ever-present social media and news cycle plays with our minds, and a current topic is viral mutation. My friends, this is what viruses do. All. The. Time. Imagine making a few color photocopies, one at a time. Now imagine commanding the photocopier to make one thousand; the ink may run out, the rollers may get dirty or the paper will jam. And you will have a few “mutated” copies that don’t look quite right. It will neither derail your project, nor cause you to be fired. Same thing with viral mutations; most just get trashed and it would be an exceedingly rare and wicked turn of fate for a mutation to pop up that was more transmissible, caused a higher mortality rate, or was vaccine-resistant. Mind you, the longer we let this damn rogue photocopier mess things up, the higher the likelihood that such a mutation might occur. So have a chocolate and focus on how to stop that happening. And resolve to fact-check before forwarding sketchy “news” articles.

Recently, the UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the first to receive it outside of clinical trials was Margaret Keenan, a week before her 91st birthday. Next up was the poetically named 81-year-old William Shakespeare, inspiring many puns: Was this “the taming of the flu?” “Is this a syringe I see before me?” “Alas poor Covid, I knew him well!” And of course, “All’s well that ends well!” Vaccines work by “educating” the immune system so that when an offending virus appears, instead of being able to infest and do damage, it is recognized as an interloper and destroyed. For vaccines to be effective, not only must they protect an individual, but many individuals must be immunized to prevent becoming carriers. If many people choose not to be immunized, the population as a whole suffers. This is the “herd immunity” you hear speak of. To provide an example, prior to the “anti-vaccer” movement, measles had been eradicated in America, due to herd immunity. Since the “controversy” sprung up, cases have climbed worryingly. To get rid of measles we need 95% of people to be vaccinated and sadly that number is much lower due to a misplaced lack of confidence in vaccines. For the COVID vaccine, we need to set aside our fear of needles, dismiss fringe theories, and participate. I shall certainly be vaccinated and resolve to do all in my power to educate others.

The quintessential new year’s resolution is to exercise, and it was mine last year. The old aphorism that I shall only exercise on the days I eat is a good one. Setting targets helps. Having a social network that encourages you to post a daily completion log with evidence also helps. But the satisfaction of seeing parameters of health improve is very addictive and provides positive reinforcement. You will see weight come under control, strength increase, sense of well-being improve, and have reduced susceptibility to all illness. Including infections like COVID. Modern watches can also measure multiple parameters like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, time for heart rate to slow, and seeing each of these graphically move in the right direction helps one on days that exercise does not appeal; you will not want to let your group, or yourself, down.

Finally, that old chestnut of a resolution, eating a healthy diet. And yes, chestnuts are fine. I have said this before and will restate the simple rules:

No fad diets are necessary.
Consume fresh, not processed, foods.
A plate of colorful foods – but only colors found in nature – with white elements (potatoes, pasta, rice) being a small part.
Reduce meat consumption.
Remove as much sugar from your diet as possible (it is found in many processed foods).
Take your time to eat a meal; you will eat less.
Get smaller plates.

But, and it’s a big but, enjoy your food, it is a celebration of life and its rituals. Even chocolate. Especially chocolate. But in moderation or you will have a big butt.

Have a happy, safe, and COVID-free holiday season and may 2021 be full of flying adventures all enjoyed in good health. Fly well.

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.
Topics: Pilot Health and Medical Certification, Pilot Health and Medical Certification

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