Jacqueline, welcome! It’s great to have you join Elly in representing Belgium on the Patient Council. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Jacqueline Bowman-Busato. I have to consider myself a bit of a World Citizen having been born in Guyana South America, relocated with my mother and two older sisters to London when I was 5 years old. I completed some of my university studies in France and then moved to Brussels in 1996 on the off-chance of finding something “a bit different to do” instead of the legal career charted out for me if I returned to London after my studies in France.
I’ve been together with my husband for the past 10 years and we got married in the Empire State Building, in New York at the end of 2010. He’s Belgian Flemish with Northern Italian ancestry on his father’s side.
I’ve been working in the international policy environment since the start of my career; firstly for a Member of the European Parliament and then variously for UK government agencies, EU trade associations EU institutions and consultancy and a Patient-led Policy Think Tank before finally setting up my own hybrid company focussing on strategic stakeholder engagement for transformation of healthcare systems towards person-centred care.
My passion for healthcare systems transformation was ignited when I was hired to head up the Brussels representation office of a major global NGO advocating for reproductive health and rights for women in developing countries.
I could go on, but what it boils down to is that I am a product of my upbringing. Guyanese culture dictates that we must be high achievers on paper. And in the end, this has for sure majorly contributed to my health challenges and in the end triggered the obesity journey.
Please tell us about your country and where you currently live:
I have lived in Belgium for the past 22 years. Belgium is the “Capital of Europe” and certainly from the “European policy and institutional perspective. I have lived in the Flemish speaking part of the country for almost 6 years now with my husband. It has been like living in another country compared to Brussels. But I really enjoy it because there is a sense of community in my local town and it is only 15 minutes by train into Central Brussels.
Our readers will enjoy hearing about your favourite activities, hobbies and interests:
Since bariatric surgery 2+ years ago, I have completely overhauled my life and activities. I now spend time enjoying going for walks in the village, around Brussels or whichever city I am visiting for my work. I also try to build in my mental wellbeing into my daily life as a “hobby”. So I do a guided meditation for calm most days which has really helped me to cope on my journey. I have also now started a video diary on YouTube as a way to stop hiding and getting out to say what’s on my mind.
I am also very interested in interior design and renovation. My house is finally finished!
Thank you for sharing your personal experience of obesity:
Up until the age of 22, I was a UK size 8-10. It really didn’t matter what I did. I am also partially sighted (blind in my left eye) and had always found the mechanics of sports very challenging growing up. Then suddenly, due to some major trauma, I now realise my thyroid flipped. I gained 15 kilos in the course of 3 months and started comfort eating. I was on my Masters’ degree in law and working for a Member of the European Parliament at the time in France. I had no choice but to keep on going despite what was very likely to be PTSD, clinical depression and the onset of autoimmune Hashimotos thyroiditis.
It wasn’t until 10 years later (and lots of ups and downs with my weight) that I was finally diagnosed. And even then, I was only told it was hypothyroidism. My condition was so severe that my liver and kidneys were inflamed to the point that my doctors thought I must be suffering from Hepatitis and my body was literally starting to shut down.
It took another 14 years to be retested and prove that my thyroid antibodies were such that it was indeed autoimmune Hashimotos and could be managed to a great extent through diet as well as the thyroid medication I was already taking.
Going through 20 years with varying amounts of “brain fog” affected my capacity to manage my weight effectively. I kept on searching for energy through (as it turns out) the wrong foods for my thyroid health and autoimmune Hashimotos. At that point, no-one in the medical profession was making the linkage between Hashimotos and the effect of nutrition on self-management.
I would lose 20 kilos and regain 30. It got to the point when in 2016 I had reached 107 kilos (I’m only 160 cm) so for my frame this was just too much in addition to the daily joint inflammation and pain, chronic gastroenteritis, majorly depleted vitamin D and iron which all presented as clinical depression. I was tired of being “punished” for my size when out clothes shopping every three months for a new wardrobe. I was tired of being exhausted but having to put on a brave face due to my career progression in highly competitive environments!
So I finally went to see my GP (family doctor) who suggested I go directly to see the local Bariatric surgeon who is also a leader in Europe in his profession. We got along really well and the rest is history! I underwent a mini gastric bypass on 4 July 2016. I am now down to my ideal weight and managing my new lifestyle very well.
It’s not been easy. Yet again, no-one gave me clear advice on spacing of bariatric related vitamins and antacids with my thyroid medication which meant that my body did not absorb any medication for 8 months and yet again started to shut down. I was fine within a week of working out for myself what was going on. My doctors merely confirmed!
How you currently advocate for patients and how do you hope to advocate for patients in the future:
I now realise that I really have to be my own best advocate in my health and also fighting for obesity to be taken seriously as a chronic lifelong complex disease. It was around this time that a colleague introduced me to EASO and suggested I become involved in the EASO Patient Council.
I have seen a whole different side to patient advocacy by becoming involved. It is a very different perspective from my day job where I am usually positioned as a “trusted third party” where I work with all stakeholders to find a common pathway.
For the EASO Patient Council, I volunteer for the Communications Group so that I can provide my experience to support the team effort without causing a conflict of interests in my day job.
I am also in the process of working to establish the Belgian Obesity Patient Organisation with another Patient Council member, Elly Jeurissen, a Dutch-speaking colleague. We want to cover the linguistics of the country. The main objective of BelgObese will be to advocate to ensure that obesity is not only treated as a disease in practice which is happening a lot in Belgium informally, but that it is also given the same status in laws and health policies at national and regional levels.