My first encounter with Thangam Debbonaire was in February this year when she made an appearance at the Global Health Short Course led by students at the University of Bristol. Thangam is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees, which provides a forum for the discussion of issues relating to refugees, both in the UK and abroad, and promotes the welfare of refugees. She spoke passionately about the crisis and was happy to answer every question posed by the audience, offering advice about what we as students can do to make refugees feel more welcome here in Bristol. Afterwards she had to rush off to another commitment, at 6pm in the evening her working schedule for the day was still not complete.
At the start of October when I was fortunate enough to shadow Thangam for a day in the Bristol West constituency. Following the election, and the very impressive increase in her majority to 37,336, her office was presumably hectic and inundated with emails. I was therefore surprised to get a reply , I learned that Thangam and her team make a point of replying to every email they receive from constituents. A personal touch that highlights how tiring the Bristol West team works to ensure they know their MP cares.
As a medical student, I am taking the opportunity to intercalate in a Global Health BSc this year. I was keen to experience a day in the life of a woman who is publically passionate about topics covered in the course, such as gender and health inequalities, and learn how these issues are addressed within politics. Lacking in political knowledge, I was nervous and unsure about what to expect from the day, but immediately felt comforted by Thangam who ran down the stairs from her office to greet me. After a quick introduction to the team, who were all very welcoming, there was barely time to discuss the schedule before Thangam and I were off to our first stop of the day seeing the incredible work being done at the Prince’s Trust in Bristol.
We walked to every appointment as it gives Thangam the chance to see first-hand what is happening in her constituency. Even while travelling and talking she was constantly aware of her surroundings, running to the aid of those who had fallen off bicycles or taking note of vehicles that were driving recklessly. There was barely time for lunch during the day, with Thangam accepting a last minute interview on her opinion of drug legislation. She has been increasingly vocal about the impact of current policies and how more needs to be done to reduce harm and risk.
We spoke about her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015 and I was in awe as she explained how she continued to serve as an MP throughout her treatment. During this time she was appointed the Shadow Minister for the Arts, presumably her impressive musical background as a professional classical cellist was a factor. Despite the controversy surrounding her new position and the fact she was battling breast cancer, Thangam worked tirelessly on an Arts Policy for Jeremy Corbyn.
Having a medical background, I can appreciate how intense cancer treatment is. From chemotherapy destroying both cancerous and healthy cells as it flows through your veins, to undergoing radical surgery. The process requires an immense amount of strength and determination alongside endless support from health professionals, friends and family. Thangam’s modesty shone through as she spoke of this difficult time and she had nothing but gratitude for the service she received as a patient in the NHS.
The day finished at the Bristol University Labour Society event where she was the main speaker. The room was full of students from a variety of courses and of varying ages, keen to learn about what her job entails as an MP and Whip for the Labour Party. If you had asked me this question at the start of the day, I too would have suggested the obvious answers, such as campaigning and representing the views of her constituents in Parliament. Whatever Thangam’s job description is on paper, I have seen her go above and beyond her pay roll. You don’t have to look much further than her Twitter account to see all of the charity work she is involved in and her passion for raising awareness of particular issues that minority groups face.
I left the event at 9pm exhausted, while Thangam was still there answering questions from the audience, before her cycle home. Thangam’s majority is not surprising when you see how tirelessly she works 7 days a week and the love her constituents display for her in return. Thangam truly is an inspirational woman and I arrived home that evening feeling incredibly proud of being a Bristol West constituent.