Physician and researcher Chahinda Ghossein on the turbulent year of 2020
2020 was a turbulent year for many people, including Chahinda Ghossein, cardiologist in training at Maastricht University Medical Centre+. But, she says, “it was also successful. I ticked a few items off my bucket list.” Number one by a wide margin was publishing Queen of Hearts, a book on the power of vulnerability. In it, women open up about what it’s like when a pregnancy doesn't just bring joy, but also comes with complications, difficult decisions and grief.
January 2020. Chahinda Ghossein is dividing her time between her research and her intensive care (ICU) rotation. As a member of UM’s Queens of Hearts project team, she is studying the consequences of pregnancy complications. People who develop preeclampsia, for example, are up to eight times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke later on. Ghossein wants to find out whether the placenta indicates which people are most at risk. “I wanted to learn more about this condition so that we can personalise preventive measures. Not everyone has the same risk profile. Cholesterol may be a major problem for one person, whereas it’s blood clotting for someone else; for yet another person, it may be high blood pressure. The same programme will not work for everyone.”
She's also putting together a book: Queen of Hearts, on the power of vulnerability. The book will contain stories of women who, like Ghossein herself, experienced pregnancy complications. One of these women is Dutch TV personality Eva Jinek. The book will be launched in her talk show Jinek, on Mother’s Day.
March 2020. Ghossein is still working in the ICU, full-time by now. Her research project has been put on hold and all leave has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We no longer worked week or weekend shifts; everything was blurring together. We were no longer in charge of our own time. We didn't know what was going to happen. There was a lot of pressure and stress.”
She was supposed to be attending a conference in Toronto. “I’d won a prize there and was going to give a talk. I was in the car on my way to Schiphol Airport when I received an email from the hospital and the university urging people not to travel, effective immediately. I turned the car around. One of my colleagues hadn’t read the email, so he did get on the plane. Upon arriving, he learnt that the conference had been cancelled while he was in the air. It was very difficult for him to get back. I was glad I hadn’t gone.”
COVID-19 is taking over everything. “All I did was work. We decided to postpone the publication of the book; we still had a couple of things to do that we wouldn’t be able to do remotely, like take photographs.” Ghossein, who lives in Belgium with her family, finds herself crossing the border at all hours of the day. “The border closing was one of the most bizarre restrictions for me personally. Our house is in Belgium, but we live in the Netherlands. I had to show them my hospital ID and a letter from the hospital each time. And even then they asked me questions sometimes.”
Despite the fact that she is fighting on the front lines of the pandemic, Ghossein never fears for either herself or her family. “It’s precisely because I was working in the ICU that I saw the people who were most affected by COVID-19. My friends, family and I didn’t fit the profile.”
She also suddenly finds herself homeschooling her son. “It was difficult. I didn't know what to expect from him, and he had to adjust his expectations as well. Being at home usually means playing and cuddling. Now, it also meant being homeschooled. He didn’t think it was fair that his little sister, who is still in preschool, was allowed to play.”
All this time, her research – one of her greatest passions – is on hold. But life finds a way. An ICU specialist asks her to contribute to research on COVID-19. “It soon became clear that COVID-19 doesn’t just affect the lungs; it’s a multi-organ disease. We wrote down a lot of different information about each patient who came in to see if we could develop predictive models: could we predict how the disease would progress?”
That’s how something positive came out of the crisis. “Working in the hospital is very rewarding, but I get very restless when I can’t help answer questions. Thanks to this research, we also started looking differently at other diseases. If there’s a link between lung damage and heart damage due to COVID-19, could the same be true for other pulmonary infections?”
June 2020. As the Netherlands gradually comes out of lockdown, Ghossein continues her other activities. She applies herself to her book. It has now been eight years since she lost her daughter Rachelle. Rachelle was born at 34 weeks after a difficult pregnancy. She was born with a chromosomal disorder and had a short life expectancy. After ten days, Ghossein and her husband decided to take her off the ventilator. “I couldn’t talk about it in the beginning. A couple of years ago, [local broadcasting station] L1 interviewed me about my research and they asked me if I wanted to share my own experiences. I said no. Now, I was ready.”
She had been considering the idea of writing a book about her first pregnancy for some time when she met Janou Boosten-Lamkin, a manager at Rabobank, before a benefit night. Boosten-Lamkin had also had a difficult pregnancy. “We got talking and one thing led to another. The book contains our stories as well as those of four other women. We want to remain in charge of everything: no publisher. This was because we wanted all proceeds to go to the research project, but also because it meant we could make our own decisions. A publisher might have put Eva Jinek on the cover, but to us, all stories are equally important. People say, ‘Oh, it’s such an understated cover.’ Yes, that’s the point! It should be about the contents. We did ask a journalist to conduct and write the interviews and a photographer to take the photos. We didn’t want to do the interviews ourselves; there had to be room for the other person’s story. Us sitting there with our own experiences would’ve affected the course of the conversations.”
October 2020. At long last, the day of the book launch has come. “The book had to be perfect, as it’s a reflection of who the women in the book are. And in my eyes, it is.” Ghossein tells her story on Jinek. Viewers’ reactions pour in. “It was very intense. People were sharing very serious stories with me. The effect was greater than I could’ve hoped for. Many people feel so alone after a difficult pregnancy. We underestimate the impact it has, afterwards as well. Not just the physical aspect, but also the guilt towards the child and the grief. It helps to talk about it.”
Ghossein hopes that the increased attention will contribute to the prevention of disease following a difficult pregnancy. “These people currently fall through the cracks. You have a final consultation with your gynaecologist six weeks after delivery, and you won’t see a cardiologist or neurologist until after you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke. There should be a routine follow-up programme in place.”
November 2020. We meet up at the hospital, where Ghossein is now working full-time on her specialised training in cardiology. After the book launch, she needed to take a break. “I was taking a week off in autumn anyway, but I took off a few more days after that. I wanted to be calm and rational while telling my story on Jinek, so I’d put the brakes on my emotions. It asked a lot of me. The book had also played such a large part in my daily life for so long. For a moment, I was like, ‘Wat do I do now?’”
Just for a moment, though – because soon enough, she came across something else that piqued her interest. “I can’t say much about it yet, because it’s not yet set in stone. But it has to do with translating research into practice.”
All in all, she thinks, 2020 was a successful year after all. “I have very mixed feelings about it. It was turbulent, but also enriching. This year was all about renewal for me. I met new people, explored a new specialty – intensive care medicine – and got to learn about a new disease.”
Christmas interviews Observant
In Observant's Christmas special we ask employees and a student to look back on 2020. It was an eventful year for many.
You can read here the interviews with HR-adviser Pierre Schröder, Medicine student Vera Schriebl, Nick Bos, vice chair of the Executive Board, Mark Vluggen, director of the Bachelor Programmes at the School of Business and Economics, and Dave Mattheijs, district attorney in the case of Nicky Verstappen and lecturer at UM.
On Wednesday 16 December the digital Christmas special, including the six interviews, will be published on our website in PDF.
The Queens of Hearts book is available on www.queenofhearts.eu. All proceeds will go to the research project of the same name.