Mike Jetten’s year of extremes
Mike Jetten’s life had already been turned upside down: his wife Mieke suffered a brain haemorrhage last year and shortly after that, he received a very prestigious research grant of 7,7 million euros. Corona makes life for the Professor of Microbiology even crazier (and tougher). Because of the contamination risk, he is unable to visit his wife in her nursing home. 'She doesn’t understand it.'
Mike Jetten (58) had warned us: the nursing home could call any moment and he’d have to answer. His cheerful ringtone sounds twenty minutes into our stroll along the Waal. A cargo ship sails by on the water; it’s called Isis. Jetten’s wife’s name is Mieke. Discretely the Professor of Microbiology moves a few steps away, bends his head down, and speaks softly into his phone. Bird songs can be heard on the floodplains.
‘Oh, oh, oh!’ he shakes his head as he falls back into step with me a few moments later (at 1.5 metre distance). ‘We thought the coronavirus storm had passed on the nursing ward, but they’ve just had three new cases.’ Of the 18 patients at the nursing home, 11 have so far been infected with coronavirus, the nurse just told him. His wife is still ‘clean’, but how long will she remain so? Jetten is hopeful: Mieke is wheelchairbound and cannot walk up to other residents. Nor does she touch anything or anyone. And she’s currently isolated in her room.
When did you last see her?
‘On Tuesday([it is now Thursday, 16 April, Eds.). Until 17 March I visited every day and helped her eat lunch. After that visits were no longer allowed, but I still go around twice a week to pick up her laundry. The other day she just happened to be sitting outside, so I could talk to her from a distance. Video calling is too complicated; Mieke doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do. I asked the nurses whether we could continue to arrange a chat when I pick up the laundry, and they said yes. They even put out a garden chair for me at 3 metres distance. I put on my loud lecturing voice, and we can talk.’
How much does Mieke understand of the situation?
‘Nothing. I tell her why we’re doing this, that all I want is to give her a big hug, but that it’s not possible right now. She accepts it.’
‘As a microbiologist I know how to work clean and sterile’
This interview with Mike Jetten has been planned in my diary since February. I wanted to talk to him about his year of extremes: how he won a European mega-grant of € 7.7 million just a few months after having to move his wife to a nursing home. On 4 March 2018, Mieke suffered a brain haemorrhage and now requires constant care. We could never have imagined back in February that Mike Jetten’s year of extremes could be exacerbated even further by something like the coronavirus.
So let’s talk first about coronavirus, then, which has recently unfolded as a silent killer in nursing homes. Does it keep Jetten awake at night?
‘Sometimes,’ he answers honestly. Mieke is 56, a spring chicken compared to the other residents, most of whom are 80 and older. Even if she became infected, it would probably not be fatal. But her health is very fragile, which is why she is in a nursing home in the first place.
Have you thought of taking her home?
‘I have; it’s something I’ve thought about many times over the past year. I’d like nothing more than to care for her myself, but it’s not in her best interest. I have to work, take care of our three children and stay healthy myself. At the nursing home, she has access to all kinds of therapies and daily activities. We see now how important these are, because they stopped weeks ago, and now her leg is hurting again. Mieke spends a lot of time outside, listening to music. She is at easy in the nursing home. I see myself as a kind of overseer: I try to organise the best care possible for her, and I help out with walks and food.’
What if Mieke does become infected with coronavirus? Would you blame the nursing home? The media claim many nursing homes were far too late in taking preventive measures.
Mike Jetten thinks about it for a moment, as his walking boots come down rhythmically among the dandelion heads in the grass. ‘It’s easy to criticise in hindsight,’ he says. ‘When the first case was observed in a patient in Loon op Zand, we should have immediately put all hospices and nursing homes under a stricter regime. If everyone washes their hands and only has one visitor a day, people are much less likely to become infected. Incidentally, our nursing home did take measures early on: there was a bottle of disinfectant in the hallway. I’ve often had words about it with visitors. There I was, dutifully disinfecting my hands, while others simply walked past. ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, I would say, ‘you aren’t doing this for yourself, but for the residents.’ People would often stare angrily back.
I was always careful when I went to visit Mieke. It’s partially a professional habit. I have little expertise when it comes to viruses, but as a microbiologist I know how to work clean and sterile. At the Huygens building, I don’t touch the stair rail. It seems there was no shortage of protective equipment at Mieke’s ward. I’m not looking for someone to blame. What good does it do to point the finger?’
The impact of coronavirus on Mike Jetten’s life has been enormous. Not only have his daily visits to his wife been cancelled, he is also at home full-time, with his one son who still lives at home. There’s not much point in going to work; all experiments have been discontinued.
In October 2019, together with his Utrecht colleague Caroline Slomp, he won a prestigious ERC Synergy Grant: € 7.7 million for research on removing methane and ammonium from the seafloor. According to the plan, the team should now be starting to recruit 14 PhD students and postdocs. But there are delays. Because, says Jetten, it’s okay to conduct interviews via Skype, but you still want to meet people in person before hiring them. Research has also been discontinued for now. The reason: the ships aren’t allowed to sail.
‘We’re collecting samples, in Lake Grevelingen among other places. This involves hiring a boat with a crew of twelve to navigate and operate the equipment. But it’s impossible for crew members to keep 1.5 metres apart.
Still, the research project is due to run for six years, so Jetten is not overly worried about the delay yet. What upset him more was his 50th PhD defence in March, which could not be celebrated as he’d hoped. Due to the coronavirus measures, the anniversary PhD defence by Martine Kox couldn’t take place in the Aula. Jetten sat at his laptop wearing his academic gown, and then cycled to Kox’s house to hand her diploma over in person, wearing gloves.
‘Of course, it was even more disappointing for her. It may have been my 50th PhD defence, but it was her first and only one. Luckily, she did a great job.’
Do you miss talking to Mieke? You can no longer share these things with her. Or just talk about your day.
‘She always needed that more than I did. ‘Regurgitate her day’ is what I used to call it. But now I don’t get the opportunity to talk about any challenges either. When there were tensions at work, I really appreciated coming home and asking her: Am I looking at things wrong? What I find most tough about this whole situation is being a single parent. You decide to have a family together, not by yourself. If you have a partner, you can go for a walk when it all gets too much. That gives you some breathing space.’
In earlier days, would you and your wife have opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate winning the ERC grant?
‘No, we wouldn’t necessarily have celebrated at home. I think we’d have gone out for a nice meal with my co-applicant Caroline and her husband. This whole award completely passed Mieke by. Luckily I had my partner in crime, Caroline, to call when I heard we got the grant.’
We’ve stopped on one of the sun-drenched Waal beaches for a short break with a drink of water and some biscuits. On the edge of the groyne, a cormorant sits drying its wings. Jetten’s father was a bird-watcher. He could recognise birds by their call. As a child, little Mike often accompanied him on his walks. For nature, it’s a blessing that people have been forced to suspend their activities, says the microbiologist.
‘The factories have stopped, we drive less, and we hardly go out. As a result, air and water quality has improved.’ He hopes this will stimulate society to switch to sustainable practices more quickly. ‘The planned reduction in intensive livestock farming is good for our nitrogen crisis and will hopefully also reduce the likelihood of another virus being transmitted from animals to humans. This crisis emphasises how insignificant and temporary we humans are on our microbial planet.’
Jetten also enjoyed going for walks with Mieke. The question is whether she remembers it. What memories does she still have of her life before 4 March 2019? Both her short-term and her long-term memory have been affected, explains Jetten. Although he doesn’t believe she has lost her long-term memory completely. ‘My impression is that it’s still there, but we can’t access it.’
‘The Mieke we used to know would not have wanted to live like this’
She can sometimes be quite clear-minded, or remember things about the past. The other day, Jetten was asked to pass on greetings from one of his colleagues. He asked Mieke whether she remembered them. She said: ‘You’re doing something with bacteria and supervising young children.’ Jetten laughs. ‘That’s spot on, Mieke!’
She usually recognises her husband, but she doesn’t always remember his name. So he helps her. ‘Mieke Burggraaff has three children and is married to…?’ Time and again, he tells his wife their life story. How they met at Wageningen University, how they spent a few years in Boston and Delft, how they became parents to two boys and a girl, and lived for over 37 years as a happy loving couple.
Is Mieke still your wife?
‘It’s something I’ve been philosophising a lot about with family and friends. Her body still looks the same. She can still laugh out loud and respond ad rem. The haemorrhage affected her left hemisphere, which is the seat of our negative emotions and inhibitions. This has made her less inhibited; she sometimes laughs about things you’re not supposed to laugh about. I don’t hold it against her. But the intelligent woman, the partner with whom I could really talk and reflect? No, that’s not Mieke anymore.’
Is this the life she would have wanted for herself?
‘I suspect not. As it happened, Mieke and I had talked about this quite extensively six months before her haemorrhage. At the time she said quite clearly that if something ever happened to her, she didn’t want to end her days helpless in a nursing home. Very good, I said, neither do I. But it’s not that simple. We are now in this situation, Mieke became incapacitated from one moment to the next.’
Does she have a good quality of life?
Jetten is silent for a moment as he thinks. ‘It’s a difficult question. The Mieke we used to know would not have wanted to live like this. Completely unaware of her situation, dependent on other people for care. But she’s not unhappy; she feels well cared for. She’s not suffering. I think I suffer more than she does. What I experience now is a constant living loss and sadness, a semi-permanent grief with an uncertain end.’
Was there a decisive moment? Could you have refused some treatment?
‘If I had not called 112, she would have died. But of course you call the ambulance; you don’t know how severe it is. Mieke was at home when she started with a headache and feeling nauseous. Then she became non-responsive. It felt like the ambulance was there within a minute. They immediately said they thought it was neurological. First I had to take my son to the neighbours, then I followed the ambulance on my bicycle. They operated on Mieke immediately; they put in drains to remove the fluid from her brain.
‘That first week, the intensivist on duty prepared us to say good-bye; he thought her condition was critical. Later a different doctor came on duty, and Mieke moved her little finger. That doctor wanted to give her a chance. Iseem to recall asking what kind of a chance we would be giving her. A small number of patients in this condition can make a reasonable recovery, was the answer. The treatment was put in motion. What was I supposed to do? Stop it? You want the best thing for the person you love, and you hope against hope that things will turn out all right.’
After ten weeks, Mieke was moved from Radboudumc to a Nijmegen nursing home. At the revalidation unit she once again learned to talk, move, and hold a spoon. After a few months, she stopped making progress. It was painful, says Jetten. And emotional. It felt like giving up. ‘She was transferred to the somatic nursing ward. You can be pretty sure the only way she will come out of there is in a wooden box.’
Jetten slows down to photograph a herd of Konik horses on the beach. Lots of foals, he notices. Life goes on.
This raises the question of how bad it would be if Mieke died of coronavirus. Jetten doesn’t answer immediately. He coughs, lets his eyes drift across the floodplains. ‘If I believe the statistics, people in Mieke’s condition have a life expectancy of eight to nine years. The most common cause of death is an infection. In the past year, I’ve been aware of the fact that it could happen any moment; she could just choke on something and get pneumonia. Is that bad? I don’t know. She could be the exception that lives to be 90.’
The first weeks when Mieke lay in hospital, Mike Jetten took sick leave. Later on he tried to pick up his work, but he quickly noticed that he had trouble concentrating. He was declared 50% work incapacitated. But he also still had to devote twenty hours a week to his role as carer and ‘overseer’ of Mieke’s care. He then realised there are no regulations at the University that cover his situation.
‘When a colleague gets pregnant, you can get an allowance under the Flexibility and Security Act to hire someone or extend their contract. But if a person is ill for a long time, the department doesn’t get any money to replace them; after all, their salary still has to be paid for two years.’ Just as well, he says, that he has had no teaching engagements in the past months. He was able to transfer the most urgent tasks to his colleagues – ‘who are incidentally also overworked’ – but you can’t ask someone to take over your teaching.
‘This wasn’t how I imagined our golden years’
At his research institute, the professors have made a solidarity agreement, a kind of collective insurance. When someone can’t work for some reason, there is money for a solution. Jetten has already told the Executive Board that he is in favour of extending this system to the whole University. ‘Let’s make Radboud University the most caring university in the Netherlands by creating a collective fund available when people are unable to work.’
Clearly the Mieke situation has put his scientific success of the past years into perspective, says Jetten. With a modest smile, he asks whether the Vox journalist is now going to ask him whether he would swap the ERC Synergy Grant for his wife’s health. You can guess the answer. But if he had known what was coming, he would have made an effort to spend more time with her.
It was only six years ago that they went away for a weekend for the first time without their children. Jetten had to go to Finland for work, and he asked Mieke to come along too. They cycled together along the Finnish coast, went out to restaurants, and enjoyed themselves. They were intending to repeat the experience often. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined our golden years.’
Jetten recently informed his Dean that he would like to take early retirement so he can find a better balance between work, caring for Mieke, and his own needs. He will complete the Synergy project, and he will continue to lead the two research projects for which he was awarded a Gravitation Grant (see BOX). ‘But I would like the Faculty to look for another head of department.’
He won’t be applying for another prestigious grant, and as he winds his way between horse droppings, he jokes about jealous colleagues no longer complaining about ‘Mr. Jetten’ hoarding all the awards (Jetten is known as one of the ‘Scrooge McDucks’ of Radboud University). The microbiologist sees it as his mission to lead a new generation of researchers to the top in coming years. ‘And on sunny days like this, once the coronavirus crisis is over, I can simply say to my colleagues: Dear people, I’ve had enough for today. It’s 12 o’clock, I’m going to pick up my wife and drink a cup of tea with her in the garden.’
Mike Jetten’s biography
Born: Roermond, 1962
Study: Molecular Science at Wageningen University, where he defended his PhD thesis in 1991 (cum laude).
Career: Researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology until 1994 | From 1994 until 2000 affiliated with Delft University of Technology | In 2000 appointed Professor of Ecological Microbiology at Radboud University | From 2004 until 2010 founder and Director of the Institute for Water and Wetland Research.
List of honours: 2008: ERC Advanced Grant (€ 2.5 million) | 2012: Spinoza Prize, (€ 2.5 million) | 2013: Gravitation grant (nearly € 23 million, in collaboration with the Soehngen Institute of Anaerobic Microbiology) |2013: Gravitation grant (NESSC nearly € 28 million) | 2013: Second ERC Advanced Grant (€ 2.5 million) | 2017: Awarded Supervisor of the Year by the PhD candidate Network of the Netherlands (PNN). 2019: ERC Synergy Grant (€ 7.7 million) for research on anaerobic processes in the seafloor, in collaboration with Utrecht University.
This interview was held on 13 April and was published before in the corona special. By now, Mike Jetten is allowed to carefully visit his wife Mieke in het nursing home again. Also the laboratories at university have parly opened again.