21 June 2018

Professor thanks to his mother’s kidney

Bart Rienties was recently appointed professor at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, where he heads a team of 15 academics. Nobody would guess that 10 years ago, diagnosed with kidney failure, the UM alum’s prospects looked very different. Thanks to a new kidney from his mother, Rienties got another shot at life. Not only has he gone on to succeed in his work, but in 2017 he also won a gold medal for cycling during the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain.

Promising career

The future was looking rosy when Rienties graduated in 2000 with a promising career as an academic on the horizon. He began working as an economics lecturer at UM and, six years later, started his PhD research. In his free time he was a fanatical cyclist. “During the preparations for the Transalp Challenge, a multi-day race with an extremely challenging route through the Alps, I noticed that the training wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped.” He consulted a sports doctor and was quickly diagnosed with severe kidney failure. For the keen athlete, who was junior tennis champion of Zeeland at just 12 years of age and could hardly imagine a life without sport, the news hit him like a sledgehammer.

Dialysis or transplant

“If I wanted to live, there were two options: dialysis or a transplant”, he says. “I was in the ‘luxury’ position where a transplant was possible and there were four people in my immediate environment – including my sister, my mother and a nephew – who were willing to donate a kidney.” In the end, his mother’s kidney turned out to be the best match. “Instinctively, that was the option that felt right: a mother donating an organ to her own child.” Six months after the diagnosis, the transplant was performed at the MUMC+. Everything went smoothly for both mother and son, and just two months later Rienties was not only back at work full time, but also back on his bike.

Diehard academics

He and his wife Keetie have been living in the UK since 2010. “We’re both diehard academics who live for our work”, he admits. “Keetie is a senior research fellow at the University of Sussex, where she stays during the week. We spend weekends together in our house in Milton Keynes, a small city in the southeast of the UK, between Cambridge and Oxford. You could say it’s the Nieuwegein of England.”

Milton Keynes is the administrative and academic base of the OU, and here Rienties studies how data can be applied in human learning. “The OU has some 170,000 students. This means we have access to huge amounts of data. What do students click on in the digital learning environment? At what point do we lose them? Where do they go looking for more information? Using all these data, my research team and I try to predict which students need extra help or advice. That way we can advise the OU on how to improve their teaching methods and give them better insight into students’ emotions.”

Second chance

Rienties cycles to work, around 30 kilometres per day over hilly terrain. Add that to the weekend rides with his cycling club and he clocks up a substantial number of kilometres. All this training came together last year in Malaga, where, cycling for the Netherlands in the team time trial, he won gold at the World Transplant Games.

Rienties is grateful for having been given a second chance to live life to the fullest. “Since the transplant I look at things differently. You only have one life and you have to give it all you’ve got. That goes for my work, but also other things too.”

By: Graziella Runchina