COLLABORATION. During his time as a professor at the University, he was one of the most enthusiastic disseminators of knowledge. Ernst Nyström was passionate about what is called the third stream activities. But shortly after his retirement, he suffered a massive stroke. Gone are the quick responses, but not his inexhaustible good humor.
The brain is truly a mysterious organ. The major brain hemorrhaging that afflicted Ernst just over eight years ago was nearly fatal. When he had recovered somewhat, the words were gone – often replaced by numbers. Ages, distances, numbers, years.
“Ten!” Ernst exclaims.
He laughs and taps with his index finger on the postcard on the table in front of him. The picture shows some members of the team of researchers at the University of Gothenburg who together provided the answers in the Alltinget Swedish radio program for so many years. Ten years.
Now and then journalists ask the most peculiar questions about humans and the body, and information officers like ourselves could always count on Ernst probably already knowing the answer, or else knew who could provide it. He has always liked the challenge of explaining what seems difficult in an understandable way, even for children and young people, who often posed the most unexpected questions. Why do you get a headache when you eat ice cream? Why can you get a lump in your throat when you see a sad movie?
He lectured at the International Science Festival and answered questions when school groups were invited to Sahlgrenska Academy, provided tips about interesting colleagues and got them to appear at education and outreach events and for interviews. That was not always easy 15–20 years ago, but it’s significantly better today when more and more recognize the value of being seen and heard outside the Academy.
For many years Ernst served as publisher of Corpus, the popular science magazine, which first was published by the Faculty of Medicine and later was transitioned to serve the entire Sahlgrenska Academy when the new faculty was formed. The magazine existed from 1995 to 2004 and circulated both within and outside Sahlgrenska Academy. The editor was Carina Elmäng, who then was the faculty communications officer and who now is also sitting in the balcony in Fiskebäck with Ernst and me and his wife, Kerstin – or Sassa, as everyone who knows her calls her.
“You’ve always been a very good judge of character,” Sassa says to Ernst, who nods in agreement. “You knew people everywhere and had a fantastic network of contacts,” says Carina. “You could always give me tips about who I could talk to, and we discussed whatever subjects we were interested in.”
So much fun
As colleagues, Carina and Ernst shared more than just the motivation to together produce as good a magazine as possible. The reason they continued to keep in touch was mainly their great interest in dogs and in photography. They sent pictures to each other constantly, often of their beloved dogs, and talked about the dogs.
It was a wonderful bunch that met and answered the listeners’ questions in the radio program Alltinget, recalls Ernst.
The postcard is still on the table. Ernst points to the picture, and we return to the topic of the Alltinget radio program.
The panel members were a fun bunch to work with, recalls Ernst, and some of them still meet and have lunch together sometimes. On occasion Alltinget re-emerges at the Gothenburg City Library at lunchtime and answers the public’s questions.
“Ten!” he repeats. There were 10 delightful years with Alltinget. There was giggling and laughter in the radio studio before the On-Air light was lit, and the questions were about everything between heaven and Earth. Although Ernst was the medical expert, he didn’t hesitate to also respond to entirely different questions that interested him, such as those about space, aircraft, animals and nature.
“I remember listening to the radio and hearing you get the question about whether dogs have a sense of humor,” Carina says to Ernst with a smile. “You answered no. I didn’t agree with you at all because I know that dogs have a sense of humor, and we went around and around on the issue after the program.”
Ernst laughs, nods toward Amy, his dog on the balcony floor, and lets us know that he would have given a different answer today. Because of course dogs have a sense of humor.
Chemistry and hormones
Ernst Nystrom received his PhD at Karolinska Institutet with a theoretical dissertation on separation of different fat-soluble substances. He moved to Gothenburg in 1970 and became professor of medicine in 2000. In parallel, he worked as a chief physician at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, where he met patients with various hormonal disorders.
His knowledge of chemistry and hormones were combined when he wrote his acclaimed overview of what happens in the body when we fall in love, which also became the starting point for a whole series of popular lectures for the public. In 2007 he received the Ångpanneföreningen (the Steam-Boiler Association) award for his successful dissemination of knowledge.
We drink coffee on the balcony of Ernst and Sassa’s newly built apartment with views of Fiskebäck’s marina. The couple’s dog – Amy, a Welsh springer spaniel – takes advantage of the chance to rest for a while behind her master’s chair. Muted tones of 1940s jazz emanate from the living room.
Rehabilitation has produced good results, and the words are slowly coming back more and more. Ernst says he understands everything we say. He can put his thoughts into words and make himself understood by combining words with numbers and body language. It works pretty well. But sometimes there’s a hitch.
“It becomes almost like a quiz here at home when I don’t understand what Ernst means,” says Sassa. “Do we have it at home?” “Is it in the fridge?” “Can we drink it?”
Twice a week Ernst goes to the aphasia association and speech practice. A friend who is a speech therapist also helps him once a week to reclaim even more of his verbal ability.
“It must be frustrating to not be able to express what you are thinking,” I say, and Ernst replies, still smiling: “It is what it is, pure and simple.”
It’s fun to see Ernst again, to see that he is so like himself: the same inquisitive gaze, the same emphatic presence and the same genuine joy. Personally, I got to know him when I started as a communications officer at Sahlgrenska Academy 12 years ago. At that time he had long been closely allied with the faculty’s communications department.
Running and skiing were his major interests, and perhaps he has his good physical condition to thank for the fact that he is still alive and that the rehabilitation is having such good results. Or maybe it’s his inexhaustible positive outlook on life that has become his salvation, says Sassa:
“Sometimes when it’s raining and windy, I can look out the window and say, ‘Oh, what bad weather!’ to which Ernst responds, ‘But it’s good inside.’” That’s Ernst in a nutshell.
TEXT: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN
PHOTO: JOHAN WINGBORG