Knowing how the patient feels helps being a better doctor

His own illness inspired him to study medicine. A French-Slovak student at the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine of CU in Martin, Hugo Maurice Dumortier, also dedicates his time researching stem cells that can potentially save lives. He is a regular participant of the faculty’s scientific competition, where he won 1st place (2018), 3rd place (2019) and again participated this year with his project.

Where are you from?

I was born in Béthune which is a small town in Northern France. But I lived in Nice most of my life. I am very attached to my roots. In France, people are always proud of the region, where they were born.

Tell us more about your background. Do you have any medical doctors in your family?

I’m French from my dad’s side and Slovak from my mom’s. My parents met after the revolution and opened an art gallery together in Nice. My grandad was a respected general practitioner, but he died when I was young, and he never really had an opportunity to influence me into studying medicine.

So, what then, influenced you?

Finding what I wanted to do in life, was not very difficult since I always wanted to do something that has a meaning, and potentially being a doctor was very meaningful to me. When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2012, was what finally convinced me that treating patients is what I want to do. Being in the hospital and seeing the hospital life while having to learn about my treatment, the diet changes and the pathomechanisms involved surely contributed to my decision. I knew that I wanted to save people the same way those doctors saved me. I also knew very well then that knowing how it feels to be a patient would help me become a better doctor.

When did you first hear about Comenius University?

I heard of Comenius University from my mom who knew that I wanted to study medicine. She proposed that I study abroad in Slovakia since it’s also my country and she thought it was a good idea for me to experience life here. She knew about the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin from her high school friends that mentioned its good reputation.

Had you been to Slovakia before?

I knew the country quite well from all the times I came on holiday to visit my grandmother in Bratislava. But I never had a chance to live here before. Also, I chose Martin over Bratislava because it is a small town. Everything is easily accessible there. Having lived in Nice for some years, I knew very well that I preferred smaller towns.

How do you like Martin?

Martin is a really great town for students. I love the fact that you can go anywhere you need by foot and that you don’t need to take public transportations. Local nature is easily accessible, and you can go biking in all directions. Also, students’ life is great here. There are many cafés and restaurants in town so it’s very easy to meet with friends.

Did you have any expectations before coming here?

I did expect nature around Martin to be very pretty and I was not disappointed. It’s the perfect balance between living in a small town that’s warm in the summer and living in the mountains in the winter. 

Is there something about Slovakia that surprised you?

Even when I already knew about Slovakia and its people, I was still surprised by how kind everyone is here. When I speak Slovak, people always ask me where I’m from and how I ended up in a small town like Martin. Speaking Slovak surely helps to start a conversation with people.

At your faculty, you must be a big international group. What are your classmates like?

During my time in Martin, I was very lucky to always be in very international groups. I started my studies with a group of mostly Germans and Norwegians, and a Slovak friend with Cuban origins, as well. They were my second family for two years. We were all very close and we would always invite each other over for dinner. That’s also when I got to meet the most people from all around Europe. Thanks to that, I now also have friends in Italy, Portugal and even Finland! It was a great introduction to student life.

After that, I had to interrupt my studies for one semester because of my health and was very sad to change groups. When I came back, I was really happy to find a group with Germans, Norwegians and a French friend. It was nice to be with them for one year. I became very close with some of them. Finally, I changed groups one last time to study with students from all kinds of countries and I don’t regret it since I found the love of my life in this group. Most of them are Norwegians but from different origins: Russian, Thai, or Iranian. Also, there are students from the Czech Republic, Seychelles, and Iceland. So, it is quite international, to say the least. 

What are the studies like at the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine of CU?

The studies at our faculty are great. All our teachers have so much knowledge and they are always ready to answer our questions. Being in small study groups really helps us to have this proximity with our teachers and develop nice bonds with our classmates. Also, I value the possibility to observe surgeries, since it’s something that’s not common in France until later years of studies.

I also really appreciate the opportunity that is given to us to do research in parallel of our studies. This is something I would have never been able to do in France.

You surely showed an interest in science. In April, you presented your research at the faculty’s Student’s Scientific Activities and you were awarded for it. What exactly are you working on?

I have been doing my research since my first year in Martin. In our lab, we work on induced pluripotent stem cells. It is a Nobel prize-winning technology that allows us to create stem cells from any cell in the body. They work like regular stem cells, but must be created first, since they cannot be found in our body naturally. In our lab, we take skin cells, turn them into stem cells, and then change them into neurons or retinal cells. This year, we presented lab grown, spontaneously beating heart cells.

I was very lucky to meet Ing. Ján Strnádel quite early in my studies. He was the one to introduce me to this technology, has been my mentor, and a friend for the past five years and taught me everything he knows on this topic. I really owe him a lot since I have always been interested in stem cells and wanted to work with them. 

What is the application of these “artificial” stem cells?

In our research, we try to fully understand the implications which this new technology could have on modern medicine by changing our cells into different cell types. Observing and analyzing those cells will allow us to use them in medical therapies soon, as they hold great promise for the future of personalized therapy.

Since they arise directly from the patient, they will not be rejected once transplanted. Also, since our cells can be changed into any other cell type, we could one day see people with a transplanted pancreas that was developed from their own skin cells. You will understand that I didn’t randomly choose this example because I strongly believe that those cells might cure my diabetes one day.

It is also not typical that a student co-authors a paper in a scientific journal. But you did it. What was this research about?

In this article, we explain the creation of neurons from the skin of a patient with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in order to better describe the disease. I got the honour to be added as a co-author because I contributed by describing our cells on a fluorescent microscope for which I was trained in our labs. It is also a great honour because this is the first cell line of this kind that was made in Slovakia. This article was published in the renowned high impact factor journal – Stem Cell Research.

Do you see yourself more as a scientist or a doctor in the future?

That’s the big question, but I guess it’s possible to do both. I started studying medicine because I wanted to become a surgeon. But now, that I see how fast science progresses, I can imagine that in a few years, it will be possible to transplant organs to patients made with their own cells that I will have helped reprogram.

We have lived through a difficult year of a global pandemic. How did you manage this time?

It has not been an easy year for anyone, but I think that I have managed well. The lockdown allowed me to focus on my studies and on writing my diploma thesis. It also gave me time to do sport, learn how to cook and relax a bit.

How were you able to deal with the remote studies?

Remote learning requires some organization and it took some time for everyone to adapt, both teachers and students. It is hard to respect a schedule when you are at home and have so many distractions. Also, it is quite unfortunate that the pandemic happened during our fifth year when we are supposed to be hands-on in hospital for our clinical training. But in my opinion, the faculty took the right decision to prioritize our safety and now that the pandemic is starting to stabilize, I’m sure that our summer practices will become even more beneficial.

Is there anything positive that you can think of that comes out of this pandemic?

When I try to look at the good side of the pandemic, I see that it allowed me to enjoy being with my family and my girlfriend, which is great. Also, it gave us time to strengthen our theoretical knowledge to compensate for our lack of practice this year. Finally, I think it allowed our planet to rest from all the human activity and I hope that we all learnt from this experience.


Lenka Miller