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From refugees to expats: Dr Dennis helps them all

Patients who can’t afford medicine. Refugees who need help. Expats who are ill. All alongside research into obesity. Having trained as a doctor, Dennis Mook-Kanamori chose the hard reality of life as a GP together with a job as a researcher at the LUMC.

Why did you want to study medicine?

‘When you’re 18, it’s really hard to choose. I was interested in biology, which is how I ended up going into medicine. Perhaps because my brother was already studying it too. But I first had a two-year gap year: I went to study Liberal Arts in Philadelphia in the United States. That was fantastic because I could choose half of the courses myself, such as Ancient Greek, human evolution and education and child studies. Such a broad programme was great for my general development. After two years, I heard that I’d won a place on the Medicine programme in Leiden, so I came here.’

Dennis (in the middle of the back row) with his group during an internship at an operating theatre.

Did you enjoy your studies?

‘I enjoyed the courses from the outset, particularly the logic of discovering something new. Whether this means the immune system or the kidneys, there is always some kind of system behind it. To begin with, I wanted to be a surgeon because it seemed exciting. But an internship at an ENT department soon put shot to that. I discovered that you have to have to be incredibly patient as a surgeon: you have to be able to operate for hours on end and have a steady hand for all that time. That wasn’t for me. I now say to my students: don’t focus blindly on one specialism because it may prove not to be your thing after all. After an internship in paediatrics, I knew that was the direction I wanted to take. But I didn’t like the hard competition for a limited number of places. It stressed me out. Instead, I started doing PhD research into the genetic factors of obesity in children and found I enjoyed it. So I decided to go into research after all.’

‘For the first five years, I was a GP in Schilderswijk in The Hague. That was tough.’

What do you do now?

‘Towards the end of my research, I began to miss the contact with patients. I realised that I wanted to both do research and work with patients. It’s very rewarding work if someone comes to you ill, recovers after treatment and comes to say thank you afterwards. That’s why I have two jobs: I work three days per week as a senior researcher at the LUMC and two days as a GP in The Hague. For the first five years, I was a GP in Schilderswijk in The Hague. That was tough. I regularly had patients with crime-related injuries: men with stab wounds and young women who had been raped or had fallen victim to grooming gangs. I regularly had patients who couldn’t pay for their medicine. Or elderly people who suddenly had no carer because their son had been banged up in prison.

‘After five years, I got a job closer to home as a GP at an expat clinic in a very different part of The Hague: Benoordenhout. In some ways, it’s another world, but in both clinics I have often had to explain why we do things the way we do in the Netherlands. For instance, that in the Netherlands we don’t immediately do a scan after two weeks of back pain.’

‘Many doctors don’t dare to switch because they’ve already invested so much in their training.’ Photo LUMC

And you also teach?

‘Yes, I love it. I try to prepare our students as much as possible for the practice. There should be more attention in the curriculum to things such as management and budgets. Because regardless of whether you’re running a GP’s practice or are the head of the department of a hospital, you will have a huge responsibility for finances and staff. It would be good if medical students and junior doctors could be given coaching to encourage them to give more thought to why they want to be a surgeon or a professor and what that work actually entails. Doctors sometimes suffer from burnout during their training because the specialism turns out to be too much for them. And many don’t dare to switch because they’ve already invested so much in their training.’

Dennis’s son with a refugee in Kos.

A few years ago, you organised lectures for refugees in Leiden. How did this come about?

‘That’s a whole story in itself. In 2015, refugees began to flood into Europe, with hundreds arriving in Greece every day. My wife and I decided to go to Kos with our two children to help the refugees there. Not so much as doctors but simply to help with the basics such as food and drink, dry socks and baby carriers. We bought those in local shops there. There was very little in the way of aid at the time. Some groups had made the crossing from Turkey in three-quarters of an hour, whereas others had been through dramatic crossings that had taken hours on end. Later, my wife, who’s also a doctor, and I helped as medics in Slovenia. That was very harrowing. Many people’s feet were in shreds and they were absolutely shattered. There were even people with terminal cancer who had fled. The images of those camps still go through my mind.  

‘The images of those camps still go through my mind.’

‘In 2016, many refugees ended up being housed in Leiden, some right behind the LUMC. Frits Rosendaal [Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, ed.] and I decided we wanted to do something for these people, and came up with the idea of holding lectures. There were highly educated people among the refugees and they didn’t just want to sit around playing games. Academics from all corners of the University offered to give lectures: from quantum optics to the history of the Dutch polder model. The refugees really appreciated this. It even motivated some of them to start a degree.’

Text: Linda van Putten
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Name: Dennis Mook-Kanamori (40) 
Degree: Medicine
Association: ‘I was very active in Augustinus, but could be self-disciplined when necessary. You wouldn’t see me there during exams. I also lived in a fantastic student house on Papengracht 17-19. I still see some of my housemates on an almost weekly basis.’

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