BY ADAM CAILLER
MARCEL Levi has had a distinguished career as a clinician, academic and clinical leader in the Netherlands.
He spent 35 years at the University of Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Centre in a variety of roles, including professor of medicine and chairman.
But his latest role, as chief executive of University College London Hospital, is like being in the Champions League of hospitals.
The 52-year-old said: “UCLH is a fantastic hospital. The University of Amsterdam was a very good place, in the top 10 in Europe.
“But it’s a bit like being in the Champions League where the Dutch teams do well every year, win a few matches, but we will never ever be in the final — and everybody knows that.
“University College London, together with Oxford and Cambridge, is always in the top two or three in Europe. It really is one of the best in the world.”
Marcel, who was born in Amsterdam to Robert and Debra Levi, began his new role at UCLH six months ago.
Chairman Richard Murley spoke of Marcel as an “exceptional leader” with a strong track record in medicine, management, education and research.
He added: “I am confident that he will inspire colleagues across UCLH to continue to be the best that we can be.”
Who inspired bachelor Marcel to take up a career in the medical profession?
He said: “From the age of about three, I was convinced I was going to be a doctor.
“My father, who I was very close to, was a GP and I would spend all my time in his office.
“We were a very traditional GP family in a small corner of Amsterdam.
“My mother helped my father in the practice as well — it was a real family business.
“I cleaned the surgery and my brother would post the invoices. It was amazing and everything centred around it.”
Marcel lived in an area called Warmoesstraat in one of the oldest streets in the city.
Although his father was a GP, Marcel knew he was not going to follow quite the same path and would become a specialist.
“From the very first day I went to Amsterdam University, I knew that this was the thing for me,” he said.
“I had a lot of general knowledge from my father already, but med school was very nice.
“When the real work, of being with patients, began I really loved it.
“I always dreamed of being a surgeon but when I started my practical training, I completely fell in love with internal medicine because of its intellectually demanding, general approach, the fact that it is strongly research-driven and combines acute care — with all its excitement — and chronic care — with all these fantastic long-term relationships with patients.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Marcel, however, and he specifically remembers all the mistakes he made.
He recalled: “I have a very vivid memory of all of these patients.
“One of the first patients I had had myeloma (a specific type of blood cancer) and I prescribed him some painkillers because of the involvement of bone marrow.
“But these were not very good for his kidney and you should never give them to a patient with this disease.
“So my care for this patient was quite sub-standard, but all of these little mistakes were reversible and it was a fantastic learning experience.
“I also remember being excited about my first night shift as a junior doctor because you worry that patients will come in with all these things and you won’t know what they are.
“But as you gain more experience you tend to forget about these tensions — but at the beginning it can be really bad.”
Marcel worked his way through the ranks at the University of Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Centre, eventually becoming chairman of the executive board, but before that, he travelled . . . a lot.
He explained: “I went to Italy, America and Belgium. Between the theory and practical part of my six-year course, there was a waiting time.
“I started a research project on venous thrombosis of the leg during this time, which meant I needed to go to Italy for practical reasons.
“At that time, when I was 20, 50 per cent of the diagnoses were wrong.
“I was exploring using Doppler ultrasound, which at the time was very new, but today it is very common.”
Marcel was living in the central Italian city of Perugia.
He was meant to live there on and off every three months, switching with his research partner in Padua, but that didn’t exactly go to plan.
“He initially went to Padua, but he got a girlfriend out there and asked whether I wanted to stay in Perugia, rather than going to Padua.
“Well, Perugia is 1,000 times nicer than Padua so it was a very easy decision.”
Despite living in Italy, Marcel returned to Amsterdam frequently for social reasons and to keep up his involvement in the local Jewish community.
He said: “I come from a very traditional, Orthodox family. When I was younger we observed almost everything.
“It changed a little bit because my parents decided they wanted to bring us up in a more general environment.
“We started at a Jewish school, but my parents realised that we would only attend Jewish sports clubs and parties etc.
“This would be too limited for us so we went to a public school, meaning there was a lot of tension as parties were on Friday night. It meant that we would end up less Orthodox.
“The Jewish community I grew up in was extremely tolerant and actually told us that we could live our own life and be free to do what we wanted.”
Having now moved to London, Marcel continues to return to Amsterdam for religious purposes.
He explained: “I travel back every few weeks where I have most of my Jewish contacts, although I have been invited by members of the community for Shabbat dinners.
“I do still keep Shabbat, but in my own special way.
“Friday night is always special, regardless of what I’m doing.
“I do things on Shabbat that I shouldn’t do, such as going on bike rides, but I try to keep it as much as possible.”
Marcel made the news last month when he stated that terminally ill patients should be allowed to go on holiday one final time.
But, according to Marcel, his words were taken the wrong way with some accusing him of suggesting that the NHS should pay for this.
He clarified: “Since modern medicine has advanced, there is always something you can do.
“If you take a cancer patient who has undergone lots of therapy, but the disease has come back, there is a point in time where you have to think about not undergoing more treatment because you have to think about how likely it is to work or cost in terms of quality of life.
“I’ve seen physicians go too far and offer treatment to their patients that is not going to help them.
“I often think that this time would have been spent better with family and friends, doing something nice rather than going to the hospital.”
Where does Marcel see his career going in the future?
“I hope I am still here,” he replied. “I would like to play a role in further advancing UCLH and the hospital.
“But looking back, I’m very happy with my career. I’ve been very fortunate, and there is not a single episode that was not nice.
“Yes, you should have an objective in your life, but you should also enjoy the journey.”
Changing tack, Marcel is a big supporter of Dutch football club Ajax Amsterdam.
The club, he says, sums up the mentality of Amsterdam natives.
He said: “The club is just a little bit cheeky and arrogant. That’s the general Amsterdam attitude.”