A fighter’s last battle


Jens Auken was known for never giving up. In October 2012 his will to live got him through a successful double lung transplant, unavoidable to save his life. The feeling of for the first time in 20 years to pull air down to the bottom of his lungs made him feel like a 30-year old again. However his happiness did not last long. Jens’ own body fiercely fought the invaders of his body in shape of his new lungs. His fighting heart could not battle his own body.

He passed away on Saturday the 18th of January after having gathered all his closest to say goodbye. Here is the tale of his last 15 months and how Jens looked back at his life the first time he fought and conquered Death.

September 28th 2012. The tubes to the oxygen device lie across the living room floor and end attached underneath Jens’ nose providing him with liquid oxygen 24 hours a day. He remains sitting in his couch as I enter the door since the simple movement of rising from the sofa makes him short of breath.

He suffers from a lung disease growing scar tissue in his lungs, gradually shutting down their function. Jens has been living with the disease for 20 years, longer than any other person in Denmark suffering from the same disease. Its origin is unknown, but it is incurable.

”For some people it happens very quickly, others have a more slowly descending course. I am luckily part of the latter category. In return I am rapidly degenerating right now. I am slipping. I am not as well today as I was one month ago, and I have reached the point of no return. My ONLY chance is to have a lung transplant.” He pauses between every sentence to gasp for air.

In the spring of 2012 Jens is nominated for a lung transplant at Rigshospitalet. However after a major unraveling Jens received a shocking refusal since the doctors estimated that his general physique was not good enough to undergo a successful lung transplant.

The same night Sabine came by and hammered her fist onto the table, saying “That cannot be right!” She had spoken to foreign friends and especially a hospital in Hannover, Germany, encouraged some hope.

Sabine drove Jens to Germany to meet a team of doctors and surgeons who held a more optimistic view on his chances. He was put on a transplant list and with help from good friends arranged to have a plane ready for take-off the moment they called from Hannover with matching lungs. He was asked to get a phone with a different tune and only give the number to the Germans. ”Then you don’t jump up every time your phone rings.”

The phone lies next to him on the couch during our whole conversation.

The Auken Family

Jens is one out of six siblings, of which half have been seriously involved with Danish politics. Most famous is his older brother Svend Auken, former leader of the Danish Socialist Party, who died five days before his younger brother celebrated his 60th birthday in 2009. It added both a solemnity and a celebration of life to the party, making the day quite unique.

Besides Svend the sisters Gunvor and Margrete are well-known within Danish politics, and Jens’ niece Ida (Margretes daughter) is the current Minister of the Environment.

”The political engagement undoubtedly derives from the social engagement founded by my parents. I always found politics highly interesting, but I never had the urge to enter politics myself – besides international bridge politics. Dedicating yourself to politics from youth as several of my siblings have done, that was never my thing. I was more into firstly football, then basketball, which became my greatest passion as a teenager and I became good at – I mean relatively speaking.”

Jens is one of the few people having represented Denmark on the national team within two highly different disciplines – basketball and bridge. His joy of basketball has been transmitted to his two eldest sons, Jens Christian and Maximilian, who have both represented Denmark on the national junior teams. So far none of them have taken any particular interest in bridge; however that passion also arose relatively late for their father.

“When I was around 19 years old I played in a tournament as a substitute by coincidence. I was struck by lightning and threw myself into the game. I think I read 100 bridge books in two years. I quickly started playing with very strong players like Peter Magnussen and Peter Schaltz who just had his major break through with his cousin Knud-Aage Boesgaard. And Jorgen Elith Schaltz (Peter’s father, ed.). He was a wonderful man, I liked him very much.”

Which is your favourite bridge memory?

”It must be something international…” He thinks a little while regaining his breath.

”I thought it was amazing fun to win the European mixed teams with Dorthe and Peter Schaltz and Sabine. Then I have two Olympic bronze medals from 84 and 96. In Rhodes in 1996 we thought we had won the semifinals, but as we came up to the room we recounted to discover that we were completely square! We then had to play eight more boards and lost by 4 imps. It was almost unbearable. The next day we played Taiwan for the bronze. I said to the others: “Now we forget everything about what just happened, now we are going in there to get our bronze. It is a medal, and we are going to the podium.” Needless to say, Jens and Denmark won the match and the bronze.

Bridge and basketball did not leave time for much more. By the age of 24 Jens finally started law school and completed his studies in four and a half year – halt a year before time – and begun his career at an attorney’s office.

”I think it is incredibly funny to be an attorney. A lot of people say we work long hours, and many of us do. However there is also a considerable extent of freedom. Freedom to choose which colleagues and clients you wish to work with and planning your own time.”

Jens Auken became a business lawyer in a company, which after a series of mergers ended as Bech-Bruun, one of Denmark’s largest law firms, in which Jens was a partner until the end of his days. He was Denmark’s leading specialist in expropriation and neighbour disputes relating to major construction projects, and we have Jens to thank for a great part of the Copenhagen Subway.

Will you work as long as you are able to?

”No, I will not.” He replies quickly and firmly. ”I can tell you that. I would like to work some more years, but not as long as I could. I am actually phasing out at the moment. I will not continue till I turn 70 even though I think it is a really good company we have.”

What would you have done if you during your life had been faced with the choice of bridge or career?

”That is a highly hypothetical question – I hope I would have chosen my career. No, I would have. However soon I will choose bridge. I would be so sorry if… I mean I really want to continue playing bridge. It is what I always dreamt of.”

The Women

Tell me about your women. You have a reputation of being popular among the opposite sex.

”That is nicely put.” He smiles one of the rare times during our conversation and I see a glimpse of the charming expression in his eyes that used to conquer many female hearts. “I certainly always like the opposite sex. I find women amazing.”

Tell me about the women in your life who made an impression.

”I think they all have. It is peculiar; during my illness they have all come to visit me. “

”Sabine, she was a bit of a queen. I still remember the first time I saw her together with Daniela at the European Championships in 1989. She was no more than 24-25 years old. I certainly noticed her then.”

At the mixed championships in Barcelona in March 1994 Jens and Sabine were appointed male and female stars of the tournament and met again. Both were recently divorced, and during Easter Jens went to Germany to visit Sabine. She moved to Denmark in May and in April the following year she gave birth to their first son, Jens Christian, and four years after the second, Maximilian.

They were divorced in 2005. After their divorce Jens fell in love with Anne Kristine, with whom he had a new pair of sons, Philip and Alexander.

Despite their divorce Jens and Sabine had a special relationship until his last days. In the days before Jens’ lung transplant Sabine visited Jens every day to cook and have dinner together with their two boys.

Which is the weakest part of your character?

Jens is gasping for his breath while he thinks. “If I have to be honest, then perhaps that I haven’t engaged myself as much in other people as I should have. It may sound odd, since I actually do much for others, but sometimes I just feel that I could have done more or been more for the ones who matter to me.”

”Not being there, not keeping up, not making sure to do something. Love is so very, very important. And I see situations where I have not been present enough. I can also have a shaded conscience in regard to my children. But at least I let them know I love them, right? But I haven’t been there enough. Maybe I have worked a little too much from time to time. On a human level I could have been more embracing.”

Which is the moment of your life?

”Does such a moment exist? The moment of my life. I need to think about that. I think that the most amazing I have been part of is the creation of my children. They are all healthy and happy and marvelous, and I love them. Having those four boys who are happy and living their lives… it is… it is wonderful.”

If you had to point out the most significant person to you, who would it be?

”That is also bloody interesting. There is no spontaneous answer to that. A lot of people would probably say their father. I had an amazing relationship to my father, but wasn’t significant to me in that sense.”

”A person, who meant a lot to me… but there are so many.”

”I have my best friend Eva. My dentist. She means a great deal to me. My sisters mean a lot to me. I have four sisters. My family is very, very important. And of course Sabine. Mostly those six. And then my late brother’s wife.”

Besides the politicians Gunvor and Margrete, Jens has the twin sister Ingegerd. Especially during his last days there was a special bond between Jens and his twin. She was the one he called for the last night of his life, and she slept next to him on some bed covers arranged by the hospice staff.

The fourth is his younger sister Charlotte, who is the only one of the four to share her brother’s passion for bridge.

 Which is your greatest asset as a human being?

”As a human being…? I guess it is my winning mentality. It has assisted me a lot. Both in sports and professionally. And partly also privately. However you need to be careful not to run over… you shouldn’t win like that. Not by defeating others.”

”However this is the toughest fight, I have been forced into. It is really hard, Christina. I have no chance, if I do not make it on time.”

October 19th 2012 the good phone rings at 2:00 AM in the night. There is a donor match with the right size and right blood type. Jens flies to Germany accompanied by a friend to make it just in time for his transplant. He writes these words about his flight to Germany: “Well up high in a low cloud ceiling the most beautiful sunrise appears with all its deep colours. How incredibly wonderful.”

After five hours and 18 minutes the operation is successfully over. ”Es ist gut gegangen, Herr Auken.”

Ahead of Jens is a time of massive changes in his way of living with extreme hygiene and large portions of medicine to lower his defense system and prevent his body from rejecting the new lungs. The average life time after a lung transplant is eight years.

Jens is like reborn. With the new lungs the disease is completely gone, and for the first time in 20 years he can breathe all the way down in his lungs. He spends time with his children, his friends, he takes his two youngest boys to Mallorca on holiday, he bathes in the blue lagoons of Iceland, participates in bridge tournaments, plans even more, slowly starts working again and smiles once more. His body is slowly recovering from the previous months’ lack of oxygen.

However Jens’ new life is far too short. As early as June 2013 Jens is admitted to the hospital for a short while. He is discharged after some days and goes to Ostend in Belgium to compete in the Open European Championships. He enjoys the reunion with old friends from all over the world, but is admitted again after his homecoming.

This time his fighting spirit is against him. His body battles the intruders and his new lungs suffer irreparable damage, and the last months of his life he spends at the hospital. This time he cannot be saved. Characteristic for Jens’ will to live he makes it past New Year’s Eve. Friday the 17th of January 2014 he senses the time has come. He gathers his sisters, his children, their mothers, and his best friend to take leave.

Midday the 18th of January Jens parts with life surrounded by his loved ones, holding his son Philip’s hand. The world has lost a charmer and a fighter beyond comparison.

Thank you for the battle, Jens. You will always be missed and your name remembered.

Click here to read Jens Auken’s official obituary

About Jens Auken 1949-2014

  • Father of the sons Jens Christian og Maximilian with Sabine Auken and Philip and Alexander with Anne Kristine Auken
  • Attourney and partner in the Danish law firm Bech-Bruun
  • Represented Denmark 35 times on the Danish national basketball-team
  • Represented Denmark 400 times on the Danish national bridge team
  • Won approximately 35 Danish Championships, holds five World bronze medals and two European Championships
  • Worked for years voluntarily as legal advisor for the Danish Bridge Federation
  • Owed to him, there was a Copenhagen Bridge Invitational in 2013, og most recently he was part of the founding board of the Danish Bridge Fund
  • Executive member of the EBL for more than 25 years and the WBF for 20 years

by Christina Lund Madsen, January 2014