Dutch doctors in the epicenter in New York City

By Jaap Jan Boelens and Leontine van Elden


Every evening at seven o’clock we listen to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers cheering in support of all the healthcare workers and other essential workers in emergency rooms, outpatient clinics and nursing homes. Our kids are proud of us: “They are cheering for you too!”

When we moved to New York City in the summer of 2018, we didn’t really know what to expect – but we certainly did not anticipate this. As a family of two physicians and three daughters, we decided together to make the move to New York City, with two cats and a horse. We quickly felt at home here, with the wonderful people this vibrant and multicultural city has to offer. We feel the fear too, but it never crossed our minds to leave the city in its time of need.

Get to know the neighbors

Suddenly we are getting to know our neighbors, such as Ashlee who is a Juilliard alum and teaches music at Columbia University. Daughter Isis (15, tenth grade) and little sister Faye (7) are taking piano lessons, and their music drowns out the ambulance sirens outside. And Carolina, an NYU-student from Brazil who is stuck in Brooklyn without her family, takes the subway every day from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side to guide our youngest daughter Faye through her virtual schooling while we are at work. She is definitely one of those essential workers!

Merle, Faye and Isis

Disruption of our daily life

Our daily lives have been disrupted, not in the least for our daughters. Our eldest daughter Merle (a junior in high school), who loves her social life and misses her friends, bravely celebrated her eighteenth birthday solely with her nuclear family. She has emerged as a real chef, making breakfast for her little sister to keep her ‘healthy’ and preparing meals and lunches. Our cats are happier than ever, with people around all day giving them extra attention, and even horse Zoe gets ridden a couple times a week by a friend.

Seven-day shift at the Intensive Care Unit

Jaap Jan is normally responsible for managing the pediatric (bone marrow) transplantation and cellular therapy team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We had to drastically change practice in only a couple of days. For example, the usually very frequent checkups in the main hospital weren’t possible anymore, but thanks to telemedicine we were able to do the checkups at the labs in the MSK regional centers.

Even though our hospital is a cancer center, we knew there would inevitably be a surge of COVID-19 patients. In New York hundreds of healthcare workers as well as hundreds of cancer patients contracted COVID-19.

The majority of the COVID patients admitted to our hospital had cancer. That brings an extra dimension to the treatment: what can we and can’t we do. Both of us worked to make sure that the impact on the already vulnerable (pediatric) cancer patients is as small as possible. The routine of going into a room, examining the patient and talking to the patient and the family has changed drastically: as you have seen in the media, we have to wear full protective PPE. This all takes a lot of extra time and makes contact also less personal.

Leontine just finished a seven-day shift at our Intensive Care Unit as a ‘critical care physician’, instead of her usual pulmonology practice. Although MSK is a cancer center and doesn’t have an emergency room, they have managed to create room for critically ill COVID patients. Some staff have been re-deployed to other departments. The pulmonary team Leontine normally works in, for example, is rotating in shifts.

The hospital has put a lot of effort into protecting its healthcare workers and there have been no shortages of protective material. Leontine did come home every day with stories about critically ill COVID-19 patients fighting for their lives, in complete isolation from their loved ones. But she was very much aware that the real “frontline healthcare workers” are out there.

Humble and blessed

People tell us: you are so brave, working “on the frontlines”, whilst we feel humble and salute all the helpers around us. We feel blessed to work in a highly specialized cancer care hospital where everybody is well-prepared. And above all, we are proud of our three cool kids who are handling this situation on top of a life-changing immigration just twenty months ago.


The Dutch doctors Jaap Jan Boelens (oncologist) and Leontine van Elden (pulmonologist) moved to New York City in 2018 with their three children Merle, Isis and Faye, plus two cats and horse Zoe. Jaap Jan and Leontine both work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where for the past weeks they have been on the frontlines of the corona pandemic.