Up Close and Personal: A Life of Service - The Dr. Dirk Vander Mijnsbrugge Story

Pfizer's Medical Affairs Lead, Rare Diseases, talks about purpose, patients and pharma's power to do good



Sitting around the kitchen table, Dirk’s family can’t help but talk about medicine. Dirk, his wife, all three of their children and their spouses are all doctors. With Dirk being the only one to go into industry, he was the target of much teasing. But not anymore. Here’s Dirk’s story.
 
The youngest son in a lower-middle class family, Dirk Vander Mijnsbrugge was raised to serve others. His parents modelled a life of service; his mom serving their family while his father served their country in the military. 
 
Outside the family, his parents were deeply involved in social service and very active in their church community. 
 
His father once said “Dirk, whatever you do, be mindful, you have been gifted with talents. Don’t be selfish – use them to help others.” That struck him. He thought long and hard and came to the conclusion at age 18 that what he most wanted to do was work for doctors without borders. What could be more noble?
 
In his last year of university however, cupid’s arrow sent him on a different path. He met his future wife. Her mother was in the final stages of cancer, so travel was out of the question for her. Dirk had a choice to make; follow his professional or his personal dream. Being deeply in love, he chose to ask her to marry him and they started a family. He would find professional meaning elsewhere.
 
He and his wife both started practicing as GPs. They loved it. “It brought great satisfaction,” Dirk mused, then added, “and then I wondered, could I contribute on a larger scale? Could I help people beyond my practice in my community?” 
 
Innovative medicine
Around that time, serendipitously, he met some people in pharma. What they said about their innovative work intrigued him and he started questioning his negative perceptions of the industry. He decided to make the jump in his early 30’s, at the time a father to twin four-year-old boys and a newborn daughter. 
 
At first, he really struggled with the frustrations of paperwork, rules and regulations. “This is not what I wanted to do with my life,” he said to himself.  Then slowly he started to discover the impact he could have and that’s when he started to enjoy it. 
 
He was in Portugal one day in the beautiful city of Porto visiting a hospital that specialized in a disease for which his company had a new treatment that stopped the progression of Hemochromatosis. A terrible disease endemic to Portugal, this hereditary condition impacts the liver starting around age 40 ending in death about 10 years later. 
 
The doctor in the clinic introduced Dirk to some of the patients. “This is my colleague, working for company that developed medicine,” she said. The patient, an elderly woman, started talking, with great emotion, in Portuguese to him. “Obrigada! Obrigada!” she kept repeating. Dirk knew enough Portuguese to know that meant “Thank you! Thank you!” and the translator filled in the rest. 
 
This lady’s mother had died at age 50, from the same disease this lady had inherited but, because of this innovative medicine, her story has a different ending. “I have the same disease but thanks to your treatment, I witnessed the marriage of my daughter and saw my grand-daughter being born – thanks to you!”
 
This gave him a new lens on his purpose. He was ready for the next family teasing. “Today I operated on three people with glaucoma,” boasted one son. “What did you do? Some phone meetings?” he teased his dad.  “What did I do?” Dirk replied. “I worked with colleagues in other countries. I listened to patients and tried to build what I learned into new products that hopefully you will use in a few years.” Then he added “You should be very grateful. I build your future. If I was not here working with these patients and research institutions, you would keep doing the same thing with no innovation.” Ah…. finally, they got it.
 
A voice, and a vote, for patients
Dirk was connected to his purpose and still lives that connection fully to this day. “How do you help your people connect to their purpose?” I asked him. “At the end of the day,” he said, “what drives us and influences our decision making, must be to improve patients’ lives.” He regularly has the discussion with his team, his superiors, with everyone around him. “if it doesn’t improve patients’ lives, why are we doing it?” 
 
He encourages everyone to take a step back, reflect on what they are doing and assess if it will ultimately help patients. If not, they should question whether they proceed. “Will this really impact patients? I challenge my team and superiors to bring it back to what really matters,” Dirk asserts. 
 
Dirk was patient centric before the industry was and is thrilled to see patients increasingly being consulted across the life-cycle continuum. He adds that it’s not only industry. Regulators, access bodies, hospitals and insurance companies are all taking patient voices seriously. Dirk says he sees friends from medical school who have changed. “When we were in medical school, the patient voice wasn’t a part of the curriculum,” he mused. Now it is an important part of decisions. 
 
“What needs to happen next?” I asked him. He reflected and said, “I see colleagues who mean it and colleagues who just give it lip service.” He added, “you can tell when it’s not from the heart. You need to genuinely care about patients.” And then explained, “if you don’t, patients will feel it. You need to see, hear and feel it.” 
Despite all the progress so far, there is still much to be done Dirk believes. “Patients have a voice, but do they have a vote? Do they have real influence?” he questions. “They must not just be consulted, but must be included, taken seriously and given responsibility,” he asserts.
 
Last year, while on vacation in Australia, Dirk was on a sailing trip with two other couples. He got talking with one of the men; a retired, senior executive from the car industry. This man explained to Dirk that his job had been to optimize plants – travelling all over the world. 
 
Dirk shared that he works in the pharma industry in rare disease. He explained that he tries to help patients without treatment, with rare conditions with no hope. He told him about the gene therapy trials they are doing and how they work with patients who rely on and put their hope in them. “I try to deliver treatments and hope to patients who need it,” he summarized for the man. 
 
The man became silent. He looked at Dirk and said, “You have real purpose in life”. Dirk agreed and countered “But what you did was also very purposeful...ensuring safe., efficient cars!” But this man had not been connected to his purpose. Dirk realized too that there are people in his own company who may not be connected to their purpose. “I couldn’t do my job without my admin or my colleague in manufacturing!” he said and added, “I just hope they realize how important their roles are to patients and feel their purpose!” 
 
It made Dirk think how lucky he is that his purpose is so very clear. It brought him back to his original dream; to save and improve lives. 
 
Thank you, Dirk for sharing your story and your wisdom with us. 
 
If you want to learn more from Dirk, please enjoy this short video interview. In it, you will learn:
 
1) What can we do better with real-world evidence? 
2) How did they use real-world evidence to make a difference?
3) What is the difference between what scientists think and what patients think is important?
4) How do you take that information to make a change? 
5) What is the key solution to overcoming barriers to the essential collaboration?
 

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