Universiteit Leiden

nl en

GP in the Bible Belt: does God play a role in consultations?

Jaïr van Rhenen studied Medicine in Leiden and is now a GP in the largely religious Veenendaal. Before this, he worked as a tropical medicine doctor in Lesotho. ‘If you have the prospect of an afterlife, you often respond differently to illness.’

The Bible Belt often hit the headlines during the pandemic: because of the high number of cases and the low vaccination rate. For a few years now, alumnus Jaïr van Rhenen (37) has been working in Veenendaal, a municipality in the province of Gelderland with a population of almost 70,000 and a large Reformed community. How does he look back at two years of pandemic? ‘Veenendaal is a very close-knit community where people look out for one another. That has also meant that many people who’ve been caring for Covid patients soon become ill themselves. The number of cases in this area was often slightly above the national average, so there were a lot of concerns.’

Jaïr van Rhenen at his practice.

Lots of conversations: from patients to mayor

The vaccination rate in the municipality wasn’t that high to start off with, but it really did change over time, says Van Rhenen. ‘Around 80 per cent of the population of Veenendaal has now been vaccinated, so the idea that few people have been vaccinated isn’t true. I had lots of conversations with patients and explained what the risks were if they didn’t do it. And with other GPs I had meetings with the mayor about how to improve the communication about the vaccines.’ 

I regularly talk to patients about their support system. That can be anything.’

Lockdown loneliness

Many of his patients draw comfort from their faith. ‘If you have the prospect of an afterlife, you often respond differently to illness, particularly if you’re older. I saw and still see a lot of gratitude among older patients that they have had a good life.’ He is now most concerned about young people’s well-being. ‘In my practice, I see more and more young patients who are suffering from mental health and psychosomatic problems. They’re feeling really lonely because of the long lockdowns and periods of isolation.’

Van Rhenen is religious himself. To what extent is God a topic of conversation during consultations? ‘Not directly, but I regularly talk to patients about the meaning of life. That’s an important theme for people who are suffering from anxiety or the symptoms of burnout. Then we talk about their goals in life and whether they have enough support. That can be anything: family, friends, meditation or faith.’

Studying in Leiden

Going back in time: why did he decide to study medicine? ‘I’ve always wanted to help people, caring is part of who I am. And my father was a company doctor and he studied medicine too.’ Van Rhenen got a place on the programme in Leiden and was really happy with his student house. He didn’t join any student associations. ‘I put a lot of energy into setting up a student church in Utrecht and had already made friends through the medicine programme.’ 

He enjoyed his studies, but the first years were still very theoretical. ‘Medicine only really started to come alive when I started my internships and came into contact with patients. That’s when I started to try my very hardest. I found the hectic hospital environment incredibly interesting. Nowadays, students have patient contact sooner, which is a good thing.’ 

With colleagues in a hospital in Lesotho.

Tropical medicine doctor in Lesotho

After his training as a tropical medicine doctor, he headed, at the age of 27, to a rural hospital in the mountains of Lesotho, in Southern Africa. ‘There were seven of us doctors running the hospital. I’d felt confident about going there, but it was a bit nerve-wracking for a rookie like me. As a tropical medicine doctor, you do almost everything: all sort of operations, childbirth… you name it.’ The work required extra caution because the majority of the patients had HIV. He learned a lot from his African colleagues. ‘They taught me how to stay calm in hectic situations and that speed is relative. My colleague said: “The patient’s still breathing. Don’t worry.” This helped me take the time to assess the situation before going straight into action mode.’ But he found at times that they had different views on medicine. ‘They had their doubts about using a ventouse during childbirth because they thought this could be harmful to the child’s brain, whereas here we see this as a good intervention if needed.’  

‘We shouldn’t take it for granted that we can reach for a phone and have an ambulance at the front door within minutes.’

Back to the Netherlands

His time in Lesotho opened his eyes for good. ‘Here in the Netherlands, we’re quick to complain about everything, including the health system. Then I sometimes think: there are enough places where you can’t reach for a phone and have an ambulance at your front door within minutes. It would be good if there were more appreciation for the health system and more acceptance that things don’t always go to plan.’ And thanks to his time in Lesotho, he thinks much further than Veenendaal alone. The discussion in the Netherlands hasn’t focused on the need for vaccination in the rest of the world. The Western countries bought up almost all the supplies and the rest of the world has to go to the end of the line.’  

Advice to students

Knowing what he does now, does he have any advice for today’s students? ‘As a tropical medicine doctor, I could see the impact of my work on my life, that the work can go on day and night if you are doing childbirth and emergency operations. So dare to look ahead and be honest. Do you want to be an all-rounder or to be really specialised and only do a certain type of operation? And is your motivation really your own or are you sensitive to what others think of your work, for instance because surgery is high status? So listen to yourself because it’s your work and life.’

Text: Linda van Putten

This website uses cookies.  More information.