“I’m not thinking about dying yet”

Observant special 2023: Nanne de Vries bids farewell with a shower of awards

11-12-2023 · Interview

In one year, he received a grim diagnosis, had his last day of work, learnt that he’s going to be a grandfather, and delivered his farewell lecture at UM. Nanne de Vries, the former vice-dean of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), opens up about four emotional moments he experienced in 2023.

A grim diagnosis

It seemed a bad sign that the appointment to discuss the results of his MRI scan had been moved up. Then again, there could be all sorts of reasons for that, Nanne de Vries (67) told himself. He’d gone to see a doctor for his back problems.

In early February, he found himself sitting across from a junior doctor at MUMC+ who had very little experience in delivering bad news to patients. It’s not something orthopaedic doctors have to do very often, he explains. “The junior doctor was so upset that I reassured her, telling her she was doing great. And she was. She explained that the scan showed a pattern of spots in my vertebrae, which could be a sign of metastatic cancer.”

Confirmation came a few days later. He had a lung tumour that had metastasised to his vertebrae and lymph nodes. “I read online that the five-year survival rate was 7 per cent. In other words, 7 per cent of patients are still alive after five years. But those are just statistics. Doctors can’t tell you exactly how much time you have.”

De Vries – relaxed, dressed in casual clothes, with a grey beard – shares his story at Café De Tribunal. He’s optimistic, he says, not a worrier, “but there have been nights where it really got to me. I’ve also become more emotional. It doesn’t take much to make me cry.”

He underwent chemotherapy and immunotherapy. The exact mechanism remains unclear, but the combination therapy increases life expectancy. “The tumour has shrunk by 30 per cent. We recently stopped chemo to give my kidneys a break. If their function deteriorates further, I might end up on dialysis, which would affect my quality of life. The question now is how effective immunotherapy will be on its own.”

He hasn’t kept his diagnosis a secret. He has created a WhatsApp group chat for his family, friends and colleagues, about a hundred in total. “It’s called ‘News about Nanne’ and I use it to keep everyone posted. This way, I don’t have to explain everything to everyone all the time – that doesn’t help me, either. People react to my messages using emojis.”

Initially, he was afraid that the news would spread around the hospital like wildfire: as vice-dean, he was formally part of the hospital board. But doctors are more serious about patient confidentiality than he thought. “I still run into people who don’t know that I’m sick.”

Has his disease confronted him with death, with mortality? Not really, he says, “but that’s also because of who I am. I’m not one for sitting around; I still do a lot for UM. Colleagues sometimes ask me why, but it’s what keeps me alive. I’d lose my mind if I had to sit back and do nothing. So I’m just keeping busy.” He doesn’t do it to keep the sorrow at bay: “I’m not thinking about dying yet, not at all. I feel too good for that.”

Last day of work

Three months after receiving the bad news, De Vries had his last day of work on 4 May. He’d worked at UM for 23 years, almost to the day. He was vice-dean of FHML between 2012 and 2021.

He and his wife Carolien Martijn, a board member of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience, had made plans to cycle to Italy. He also intended to fix up the garden shed, but that plan was scrapped.

He hasn’t fallen into a life of idleness after retirement, he says. Sure, he used to work 60 hours per week, sometimes more. “Being on both the faculty and the hospital board meant I didn’t have time during the week to prepare for meetings, so I did it on weekends. I was also on various university committees and liked to poke my nose into everything.”

In a sense, that hasn’t changed. “I still get asked to do all sorts of things, like conducting a trial inspection of a faculty. I’m also supervising nine PhD students and I’m the chair of a foundation that deals with matters concerning the Maastricht School of Management, which has merged with the School of Business and Economics. I feel like I’m still being taken seriously.”

He would have preferred to retire in a different way than he did, he says, but the reactions from colleagues and fellow administrators have been overwhelming. “I received so many flowers that we didn’t have enough vases to put them in. And a whole box full of cards and get-well wishes, which continue to arrive in the post. It’s been truly heart-warming. I didn’t realise that UM had such a strong community, with so much social and moral support.”

Going to be a grandfather

At the end of June, the De Vries family gathered at a conference centre in Gorinchem. His eldest son, who is in the military, was being presented with a medal for his service in Lithuania, where NATO sent additional troops in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Afterwards, we went out to lunch in Den Bosch. My daughter said, ‘Oh, and there’s something else…’ She gave me a package to unwrap. Inside was a pregnancy ultrasound photo. Well, I had tears streaming down my face. I didn’t see it coming; my daughter is involved in the art trade, constantly travelling from one art fair to another. I’m so happy with the timing. I’m still here now; I don’t know if I’ll still be here in ten years.”

Farewell lecture

On 10 November, he delivered his retirement speech in the Minderbroedersberg auditorium. He discussed recent developments in his field of health promotion, but also addressed the merger of the university and the hospital. He thinks it’s a good thing that the administrations of both institutions are growing closer and more united. “But it must become clear what the benefits of such a merger will be, for the faculties in the city centre in particular.”

He was resolved not to “break down” at the lectern. “I’d be embarrassed. And once I start crying, I can’t stop. I didn’t want that to happen in an auditorium filled with more than a hundred professors who wouldn’t know how to react. Pamela, the rector, introduced me. After saying ‘Dear Nanne’, she got so choked up that she couldn’t speak for a moment. That’s when my emotions got the best of me, too. Fortunately, I had my back to the audience.”

After that, he was showered with awards. He’d suspected that he would receive some kind of distinction, he says, but not three medals, including UM’s highest distinction: the Tans Medal. He also received the MUMC+ Award and the CAPHRI Medal. 

Towards the end of the conversation, he waves to someone else in the café. “Hi Tom!”

Tom is one of his colleagues on the Modernisation of Digital Communication project, he explains. “I’m on the steering group. Right, yes, that’s another thing I do.”

2023: A year like no other

Not too long now, and 2023 will have come to an end. Everyone will have experienced special moments, but for some employees and students at UM, this was a very special year. Observant asked six of them about their highs and lows: student singer Emmy Ackermans, professor Piet Eichholtz, Turkish refugee/researcher Murat, tax specialist/lecturer and writer Frank Nellen, student Lucía Orozco Arbolí, and emeritus professor Nanne de Vries.

“I’m not thinking about dying yet”
Nanne de Vries

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: special2023eng, nanne

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