Every night this week, the white towers of Erasmus MC were illuminated with a projection of Kuipers’ portrait and the words, ‘We shall miss you’ and ‘Thank you, Ernst!’ Praise indeed that was repeated in many ways on social media like LinkedIn.
Administrator Joke Boonstra worked closely with him for many years and published a message on the platform in which she described Kuipers as ‘indispensable’ for numerous reasons. She especially lauded the way he took risks. “Kuipers believed strongly in the importance of a good combination of technology and healthcare, which is why he was the right person in the right place when the partnership between Erasmus MC and TU Delft was launched. In the beginning, it was not clear whether the large investments would be outweighed by the benefits realized; there were risks.”
She added, “He saw better than anyone else how the TU Delft technicians could help with the treatment of and research into rare disorders in the hospital.”
Even during the move to the hospital, Kuipers did not avoid taking risks, Boonstra recalled. “He wanted to relocate three hospitals in one day while the liver transplantations continued to operate. It succeeded brilliantly, and that will certainly be hard to imitate.”
His willingness to take risks was linked to his strong convictions. And that led to some criticism. In December, he defended the idea of closing the paediatric cardiac centres in Groningen, Amsterdam and Leiden in order to concentrate the expertise in Rotterdam and Utrecht. In his view, the concentration would improve the quality of care. Doctors in Groningen were furious with Kuipers, who will now be implementing the closure as minister. They feared it would lead to unintended deaths among children with heart complications in the north of the Netherlands.
His belief in the concentration of care emphasised that Kuipers used every opportunity to show that larger hospitals were not necessarily worse. In a NRC newspaper opinion piece from 2018 he explained why the benefits of a general hospital like the Erasmus MC, which invests in research and specialist treatment, considerably outweigh those of expensive specialist centres and small regional hospitals.
Taking the long-term view is nothing unusual for Kuipers either, said geriatric medicine internist Rozemarijn van Bruchem-Visscher. She was awarded her doctorate in medical ethics, and gastroenterologist Kuipers was one of her supervisors, even though her research was outside his specialist field. He felt her research was important and continued to supervise her even after being appointed to the Board of Erasmus MC.
During her research, it was clear that he considered the consequences of decisions: “One question in her research was whether we should feed elderly patients with advanced dementia through a tube. In the short term that seems a good idea because the patients receive nutrients that way.” But in the long term there are other considerations according to Van Bruchem-Visser. “People become disturbed by it, pull the tube out, and you do not help them like that. Kuipers could see that clearly.”
Consideration for others
Van Bruchem-Visser remembered him as someone who could always find time for others. She smiled, “Kuipers is a person who read my work thoroughly and was knowledgeable about the material. You could always do something with his comments; there was much more work to be done.” Boonstra found his interest in others to be remarkable. “He really paid attention to the other person and identified their importance.”
Resident Bo van den Berg worked as an intern for Kuipers for three weeks in October 2020 during her studies. She remembered that he actively contributed ideas about her ambitions and the specialist fields she could choose. “When he talked to you, he could also listen well and focus on your story. He did that despite having an overflowing schedule during the second pandemic peak; he could be found in the ICU talking to doctors and patients and sitting in meetings. I thought that was so admirable.”
Cat in the Maas tunnel
He made many people in the hospital relax with his humour. Van den Berg chuckled, “Just before a press conference, he would ask you in the lift about how you would answer difficult questions from journalists. Luckily, I never had to answer those questions.”
During the relocation, one of the patient escorts was delayed by a cat in the Maas tunnel. Kuipers made skilful use of the incident. Boonstra explained, “In that situation where everyone was on edge, he continued making jokes about the cat that would ruin all their plans. We were able to laugh about it.”
Did Kuipers have any faults? Boonstra said, “He could sometimes be impatient, but I think that was due to his commitment.”