(Frank Verhulst, 64, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and head of Erasmus MC child psychiatry unit)
“I hate the idea of retiring next year – I absolutely love the goings-on in this hospital and collaborating with my very special colleagues. But I’m 64 now, and all things must end eventually.
When I came to Rotterdam as a 17-year-old student, this was just a small-scale faculty of medicine which was still very much under construction. It was a time for pioneers. And now look at what we’ve got!
Originally, I dreamt of becoming a neurosurgeon, but what with only two specialist training spots being available in the entire country, I didn’t stand a chance. So I opted for neurology instead, which is how I ended up becoming a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I’m fascinated by the combination of objective biological facts and the more subjective aspect of psychiatry. What really fascinates me is the child and adolescent psyche, and the role played in this by parents and families.
I was always a hard worker and an ambitious student, which definitely helped. I was appointed to the positions of professor and head of my unit at the mere age of 35. I had some sleepless nights at first! My predecessor was a seasoned 70-year-old lady who had heaps of experience in the field. And suddenly, here I was, supervising colleagues who were my seniors, some of whom had aspired to my position. The first few months were occasionally rough, but it all turned out well in the end. Being open, straightforward and clear in one’s communication, and always setting the right example oneself – those are the keys to success.
As a psychiatrist specialising in the “soft” side of medicine, one sometimes wonders why one is doing what one is doing. Some physiological issues can be solved with a single intervention, but as a psychiatrist, one has to be very patient. Clients have to do things at their own pace, which can leave one feeling powerless at times. However, a while ago I received a letter from a former patient who was a very contrary adolescent when I was working with her. “I’ll be off to uni soon, Frank,” she wrote to me. “Thanks for listening to me all those times.” And a while ago a dissertation was dropped off at my secretary’s desk, written by a former patient who was recently awarded a doctorate in astronomy. Those are the times when I realise we do very useful things indeed.
About fifteen years ago, I got a little restless. I wanted to do something new. I seriously considered moving to America, until a good friend said to me, “Looking for a fun challenge elsewhere is fine, but alternatively, you could stay and see if you could get more out of what you’re already doing.” So I decided to stay. That’s when we set up Generation R, a study involving 10,000 pregnant Rotterdam women, investigating the growth, development and health of their children. Every once in a while I’ll wonder if I shouldn’t have gone to America, after all, but I’m satisfied with what I ended up doing. My career here has resulted in so many wonderful things.
Soon I’ll retire. I expect to continue to be involved with Erasmus MC, and I also intend to work as a part-time professor in Copenhagen. At the same time, though, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t give myself more time to see what else is out there. For instance, I love painting and writing, and I often go rowing. I have four wonderful kids with whom I’ll be able to spend more time now. Life has plenty in store for me. So maybe retirement won’t be so bad, after all.”