“I feel privileged to help”: Meet Doctors of the World’s longest-serving volunteer
Published 5th June 2020
Fourteen years ago, midwife Bettina Wanninkhof picked up a newspaper article that would kickstart a long and fulfilling career volunteering with Doctors of the World.
Bettina has reflected on her many years supporting excluded people to access healthcare during Volunteers’ Week, June 1-7.
How long have you been a midwife?
I commenced my midwifery training in 1990 after five years working as a paediatric nurse. I went on to work full-time as a hospital midwife in southwest London until the end of 2004 when I enrolled on a Master of Science in Medical Anthropology. I have continued to intermittently work as a Bank midwife since then, mainly in the antenatal clinic of St. Helier Hospital, Carshalton.
How did you come to volunteer with Doctors of the World?
In 2006, while on the tube on my way home, I found an Evening Standard, which contained an article about Project London in Bethnal Green – the forerunner of today’s DOTW clinic in Stratford. The project sounded novel and worthwhile, and there was mention of a shortage of volunteers, so I applied (and was accepted) to work as a volunteer nurse at the new clinic.
“I believe strongly that healthcare is a human right and while there are still health inequalities in the UK, feel privileged to be able to help to alleviate them in a small way.”
I have been involved with DOTW for 14 years now – some years more intensely than others. I found my personal niche within the charity when the Women and Children’s Clinic started in 2014.
What drives you to volunteer after all these years?
I believe strongly that healthcare is a human right and while there are still health inequalities in the UK, feel privileged to be able to help to alleviate them in a small way.
How has Doctors of the World evolved since you first joined?
The principles of delivering clinical and advocacy support to vulnerable migrants and other people who have been unable to access mainstream NHS services has remained unchanged.
However, DOTW has grown in size and resources, and become a more established organisation since the early days in Bethnal Green. There is now an amazing purpose-built clinic, more advanced technology and multiple clinic supervisors to support and advise volunteers in the clinic and DOTW office.
I stopped working as a health professional volunteer in the late 1990s as my nursing qualification had lapsed. Since then, I have been a support worker and used my midwifery knowledge in an advisory capacity. I enjoy the support worker’s role immensely as I am curious as to “how people tick”.
How often do you volunteer? How has your role been impacted by COVID-19?
For some years now, Tuesdays and Thursdays have been my DOTW days. I spend Tuesdays in the Women and Children’s Clinic and Thursdays doing follow-ups. Follow-ups can, for example, involve checking that a woman has received her first antenatal care appointment, alerting a safeguarding midwife to a woman who is particularly vulnerable or finding a charity who can offer a destitute family baby equipment and a clothes bundle.
“Having interactions with amazingly strong women who have survived and continue to survive in challenging circumstances has also been truly inspirational.”
COVID-19 has not changed the spirit of how DOTW works although the face-to-face sessions have been replaced by remote phone consultations. We are assisting fewer service users but have had to spend more time on the phone with those who have approached us for help. COVID-19 has made destitution worse for our client group who are already in dire straits!
What does a typical day in the Women and Children’s clinic look like for you?
Clinic days involves drinking a lot of coffee whilst seeing female service users (and to a lesser extent children), most of whom are new to the clinic. Many women are pregnant and need to be registered with a GP and be given information on how to access maternity services. They often also need information about maternity charges and signposting to charities who can help with food, immigration and housing.
We also see women who want to be referred for a termination of pregnancy and encourage all women to have STI testing and, if appropriate, take up the offer of contraception and free sanitary products. Older women also present to the clinic – many with chronic conditions, which they have self-managed but are at the point where health professional input is required.
What has been the highlight of your volunteer career with Doctors of the World so far?
Hearing British psychotherapist and human rights activist, Helen Bamber, speak at an early volunteer training day remains a highlight, along with being part of the DOTW family.
Having interactions with amazingly strong women who have survived and continue to survive in challenging circumstances has also been truly inspirational. The unfortunate truth is that it is the most traumatic cases (pregnancy after gang rape, for example) that are the most memorable (for the wrong reasons).
“Anyone with an interest in migrant health or who wants to experience working with a service that strives to give holistic care to everyone walking through the clinic door should consider volunteering with DOTW.”
A case that had a happier outcome is that of an undocumented Bangladeshi lady with a triplet pregnancy who was abandoned by her boyfriend soon after conception. Because this service user’s case was so unusual it was easy to find organisations willing to assist her.
She had early social services input, excellent antenatal care and access to a good (free) immigration lawyer who handled her asylum claim. She was allocated housing in London close to family members and when I last spoke to her, she and the babies were healthy and happy. I never did manage to source a triplet buggy for her though!
Would you recommend volunteering with us? If so, why?
Anyone with an interest in migrant health or who wants to experience working with a service that strives to give holistic care to everyone walking through the clinic door should consider volunteering with DOTW.
Why would you encourage someone to support Doctors of the World?
COVID-19 has put health and the importance of the NHS to the forefront of people’s minds. It has also highlighted health inequalities among groups such as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, people experiencing homelessness and the elderly.
There is a sense that the world has become kinder and more tolerant. This sentiment should not be forgotten and DOTW will need to tap into this spirit to increase funding for UK projects, such as the Women and Children’s Clinic, which can transform lives.
Read more about Bettina’s experiences volunteering in the Women and Children’s Clinic here.