Foto: Eigen beeld

'Irene was the love of my life'

Marjolein de Jong10 February 2023

VU student Irene made Joost Swen's (82) heart skip a beat. „I knew that I wanted to share my life with her the minute I saw her.”

Their house in Leiden is filled with colourful paintings and native sculptures: mementos of the time they spent in Congo. The living room revolves around a magnificent black grand piano, which Irene would play every day. „While the piano’s here, a piece of her is still with me,” Swen explains. 

A true VU love. How did you and Irene meet? 

„At the start of the academic year in the early 1960s, our fraternity and sorority happened to organise a sailing camp in Friesland at the same time. One rainy evening, we ran into each other in the local pub. For me, it was love at first sight, but I was a little bit awkward in her eyes. Still, I persevered and we found each other in 1962. As it happened, we both lived in Amsterdam and our apartments were within walking distance, so we soon became inseparable. I studied medicine and she studied French language and literature in different VU buildings, so it was entirely coincidental that we bumped into each other."

A coincidence with consequences. 

„Irene was the love of my life and we embarked on myriad adventures together. After we got married, I was supposed to do military service, but I wasn’t the best athlete out there. If you worked in a developing country, you wouldn’t be conscripted. Irene was willing to go abroad, but only to a French-speaking country where she would be able to get a job too. That’s how we ended up in Congo. Two years later, we took our fifteen-month-old daughter and seven-week-old son and departed for Congo."

What was it like building a life there together? 

„In the city of Kimpese, I went to work in a hospital, while Irene taught French in a high school. In addition to the Western literature already taught there, she introduced francophone African literature, exasperated by the fact that local literature was not on the curriculum."

„Healthcare in Congo was poor, which is why we were sent to the country as missionaries. In colonial times, the government left healthcare and education to the churches. I worked for the Institut Evangélique, which employed Western doctors, most of whom were from the US and Sweden. In Congo, people held somewhat divergent views of medical science and also believed that this stone statue with nails driven into it had medicinal properties."

Why did you choose to study medicine?

„I always knew I wanted to be a doctor, but my encounter with anaesthesiology was more accidental. In Congo, I used to tease the anaesthesiologist, telling him that I wouldn’t mind his job, dozing off next to the operating table. Upon returning to the Netherlands, I happened to see a job posting for an anaesthesiologist. Once I started the programme, I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into. The other students chased each other down the hallway and doused each other with fire hoses. I was already a little older and more serious, so my new surroundings took some getting used to."


Looking back, what are your thoughts on your job? 

„The least expectant have most to marvel at. Do you know that line from the poem “Domweg gelukkig in de Dapperstraat?” Anaesthesiology is a relatively versatile field, but after a successful operation, all credit goes to the surgeon. They get all the flowers, all the wine and admiring looks from all the nurses. But if the surgery doesn't go well, it's down to the anaesthesiologist. They might have failed to adjust the light properly, didn’t manage to tilt the operating table, or made a mistake in administering the anaesthesia. I can put everything into perspective, so I was always able to handle it."

„After retiring in 2006, I spent several more stints as a volunteer in francophone Africa with the organization Doctors Without Vacation. I’m thrilled that I was able to contribute."

What was so special about Irene? 

„Irene was incredibly driven and had a lot of perseverance. She was a hard worker, fantastically ambitious and incapable of sitting still. She had a job when we lived in Congo, so when we moved to this house in Leiden, she also applied for a full-time job teaching French at a grammar school. Some of our neighbours looked down on her, because it was rather uncommon for a married woman with children to have a job away from home at the time. I still remember one of them saying: “Taking a job is all up to you, but don’t expect us to look after your children if they’re sick.” Fortunately, Irene did not care. I was always very proud of that and still am to this day. She was always the sweetest wife and a loving mother who encouraged her children to pursue their dreams."

After a short illness, Irene passed away in March 2022 from a stroke. How has your life changed since then? 

„When you spend most of your life together with one person, losing them is a big blow. That’s just the way life is. The worst thing you can do is sink into despair. The sun is shining, and I’m happy. Look, I have always bragged that I was able to cope with the most stressful situations with the clumsiest nurses and the bluntest surgeons in five countries on three continents. If I was able to handle that, I should be able to handle this too."

VU Amsterdam seems to be a constant presence in your life. 

„Absolutely. We are a true VU family. Irene was the daughter of a classicist, while my father had studied theology and was a minister and my brother studied psychology. My parents had the green collection box on their mantelpiece. We ourselves had three children, one of whom studied chemistry, and 12 grandchildren. None of them are studying at the VU yet, but who knows what the future holds. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how a chance meeting between two VU students can produce such a tribe?"

I read that, shortly before her death, Irene was presented with a royal award for her piano playing. 

„That’s right. She was an enchanting piano player and used to play pieces by Ravelli, Scarlatti and Chopin. Before you go, I’ll put on some of her piano recitals. When I lie on the sofa at night, close my eyes and listen, it's like she's back here playing in the living room."