In 2012, I had an extraordinary encounter in the AMC, the Amsterdam Medical Centre, with Bart Veldhuizen (†2012).
While I was awaiting treatment, there was a man sitting in front of me with his back toward me. The chair he was sitting in looked unusually comfortable compared to what you would expect in a hospital. And there were pillows all around him.
Late in the afternoon, when all the other patients had already left, my wife and I were still waiting for my treatment. The man in the chair stood up, very carefully while turning himself around to start a conversation. We were immediately struck by his gentle appearance. We talked about his work and mine, about being a founder and a CEO. But all too often he reminded me that prior to being a businessman, he was a farmer. And every time he mentioned being a farmer, his eyes started to twinkle. Not so, when he talked about being a businessman.
After a while, the conversation shifted to what he was being treated for. He told us that six months ago he had been treated for some rare form of bone cancer, but that he had been cured, and sent back home. So, why are you here, I asked him. He had developed an even rarer form of bone cancer, and this now caused him a great deal of pain. Hence the pillows.
I asked him if he was awaiting chemo or some other treatment. He shook his head. His condition could no longer be treated.
I asked him what that meant. He continued by saying that he had just three weeks to live.
We were both completely in shock and felt incredibly sorry for him.
We spoke for some more but with a heavy heart. When the time came to say goodbye, we were lost for words.
What do you say to someone that you know is going to die soon?
As Bart walked us toward the doorway, bent forward from the pain, while holding on to his infusion pole, I stuttered: “Thank you for your inspiration, Bart.”
Bart turned around, rose up straight, giving me the biggest and brightest smile I have ever seen, and put his arm around me, saying: “You’re welcome”. Paused. “Do something with it”.
We stepped through the doorway and as we turned toward the elevator, it hit me full in the face. This man, this kind and gentle human being, who must be in dire need of all the comfort in the world, is comforting me! The tears rolled down my cheeks and to this day, whenever I’m telling this story, the very thought brings me to tears.
A few weeks later I returned to the hospital with a fever of over 41 degrees. After 16 days of ongoing treatment in solitary confinement, with all kinds of lifesaving actions, I just managed to stay alive. It gave me time to think Bart’s last words over: What is it that I’m passionate about? What is the farmer in me? What makes my eyes twinkle?
In all truth, it took me several years to find the answer.
Years later, when I noticed that I had only reached a few hundred people ─ with what I felt was my answer to Bart’s inspiring last words ─ I lost all hope. It was only after that I realized that Bart only needed one person ─ thanking him for his inspiration ─ to make him glow like a beacon of light in the night.
In the end, the encounter with Bart not only changed my perspective on life but also gave me the energy to continue my journey, despite all the hardships.
In memory of Bart.