Women in Leadership – Global Health Series: Making a difference takes courage
by Emma Oostenbroek
During one of my anatomy lectures about cardiac development, I remember learning that 1/100 children are born with a congenital heart defect. As of that moment, I knew I wanted to become a paediatric cardiologist and be able to provide the life-saving treatment these children desperately need. If I could save a heart, I could save a life. I also had the dream to go abroad and work as a doctor in resource-poor settings. I came across a non-profit organisation focusing on improving international cardiac care for children with congenital heart defects – ‘Save a Child’s Heart’ based in Tel Aviv. I knew this was my opportunity to combine both of these paths.
The mission of the organisation is threefold – treat children with congenital heart defects, medical missions to screen and diagnose children worldwide and finally to train new medical professionals. Since 2016, I have been chair of the Young Leadership Programme and a national board member of Save a Child’s Heart in The Netherlands. Being part of this group of extraordinary volunteers, I am in the position to both develop myself and my skillset as well as help grow this international organisation. The Young Leadership Programme is a global network of students and young professionals representing Save a Child’s Heart within their communities, at universities or at work. Back then, there were just 3 of us but – as chair – it became my mission to raise awareness and share the heartwarming mission of our organisation. Whilst the humanitarian message was so close to my heart; I knew I still had much to learn and grow in terms of my role as a leader in a national organization.
Generating awareness is key and I’ve been thrilled to be involved in organising events to share our message and raise essential funds. One event, I am particularly proud of, is an annual 10-mile run in Amsterdam. Over the past few years, we have seen the number of runners grow and in 2019, we managed to get a team of 50 runners together. With weekly sessions, they trained for the event and via peer-to-peer fundraising, helped raise enough money to sponsor 2 children’s life-saving procedures! Demonstrating to me, the real team effort it all involved and the importance of this as a leader.
In Tel Aviv, close to the hospital, the children and their families who are brought to Save a Child’s Heart after a medical mission is performed, are housed at the Children’s Home. As a parent you are willing to do whatever it takes for your child’s life, nonetheless it takes so much courage to fly into unknown territory and leave the support of your family behind. However, the Children’s Home is a warm place filled with laughter where often, the only common language is a smile. Cultures from all over the world come together. During my medical internship, I had the opportunity to stay here and be part of the magic.
As a medical intern, I joined the medical team during the day at the hospital in Tel Aviv. Every Tuesday a group of children arrived with their grandmothers from the Palestinian Authorities where medical facilities are poorly accessible. During this weekly clinic, the children are screened and if deemed necessary, are hospitalised to receive treatment the next day. After so many years of conflict, of course, people get frightened. It takes courage to cross the border when you don’t know the other side. But to see the fear disappear, to be replaced with trust is incredibly powerful.
However, it is not only the mothers and grandmothers of the children who must be courageous. The organisation welcomes many doctors in training, and these doctors come from all over the world, something else that requires immense courage. During my time in Tel Aviv, I met the wonderful Dr Vivienne from Tanzania. She was a young mother and had finished her medical training in Tanzania. To finally become a paediatric intensivist, she had to commit to joining the medical team for several years of additional training, leaving her young family behind. Witnessing the commitment of these doctors, shows me that both on a personal, as well as on global level, nothing can stop you if you really want to achieve something in life. All you have to do, is take the lead and solve each hurdle as it comes.
When I was a child, my aunt taught me that everyone is equal, and every patient has the right to be given the same treatment. Joining Save a Child’s Heart, I work alongside all these women, mothers and grandmothers on the inspiring mission to improve cardiac care for children around the world. To date, the non-profit organisation has saved over 5600 children, carried out over 100 medical missions to developing countries and trained over 125 medical professionals.
I believe that when you have a dream, you shouldn’t let anything get in your way of achieving it. Stay close to yourself, but don’t back down from a fight if you must. My dream is still to become a paediatric cardiologist, I still aspire to work in a developing country and the world still hasn’t seen enough of Save a Child’s Heart. It takes courage to make a difference, but the network I built up during the last few years will surely help me achieve my goals. And therefore, I must thank all the courageous women that I met at the organisation, for setting such a great example to all of us.
Emma Oostenbroek started volunteering for Save a Child’s Heart when studying Medicine and became chair of ‘Young Leadership – The Netherlands’ in 2016. In 2018 she was awarded a scholarship for the HLA in London and expanded the programme by founding HLA Amsterdam in 2019. In 2020 Emma graduated from the Amsterdam University Medical Center and started as a paediatric surgery resident at Wilhelmina Kinderziekenhuis in Utrecht, The Netherlands.