Medical Volunteer Stories: Serving to Help Children

During National Volunteer Month, our medical volunteers share their stories with us: why they serve as volunteers, what challenges they face, and how their volunteer service has enriched their life and professional experiences. We spotlight ICU nurse and nurse educator Glen Au from Mayo Clinic, and pediatric heart surgeon Dr. James St. Louis from Children’s Hospital of Georgia. Despite the pandemic, they both continue mentoring their peers in low- and middle-income countries.  Au’s online webinars became very popular among nurses in Brazil and India for high-quality training. Dr. St. Louis has been volunteering with Children’s HeartLink for 14 years. Now, he trains remotely, mentoring our newest partner Shanxi Women and Children’s Hospital in China.

Glen Au and Dr. James St. Louis


When did you first start volunteering with Children’s HeartLink? Why did you decide to do so?

G. Au: I had started volunteering in 2018 when a colleague had asked me if I was interested in teaching. One of my other colleagues had other commitments, and my purpose was to fill the position. I decided to get involved with Children’s HeartLink, an organization that provides the vehicle for me to use my knowledge in helping other healthcare workers in low- and middle-income countries to provide the best care with best practices.

Dr. J. St. Louis:  When I arrived at the University of Minnesota to lead its congenital heart program in 2007, I was immediately introduced to a former director of HeartLink. I had always wanted to participate in out-of-country work but didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant or what my involvement would entail. After an hour-long discussion, my eyes were open to the mission of Children’s HeartLink, and how it was different from other NGOs that provided similar cardiac services. I have been closely involved with Children’s HeartLink’s mission since then. The major reason I have volunteered with Children’s HeartLink for these years stems from the focus of its mission: not only treating and caring for individuals but also working on the advancement of cardiac programs in other countries.

Glen Au conducting an online webinar


What are your primary observations during your volunteer work? Any challenges before the pandemic and currently, with remote volunteering? Any positive experiences you would like to share?

G. Au: My primary observations are to see how the system functions in the country I am working with and determine how best practices in nursing care can be optimized with the resources available in this country. Remote volunteering does require more time to prepare while I have a full-time job. However, this is essential in order to maintain a current momentum of learning and providing a continuous impact on enthusiastic learners. It is definitely a lot better to visually interact with the nurses on a regular basis than just an annual visit.

Dr. J. St. Louis: My observations are reflected in the overall mission of Children’s HeartLink, which I see reflected in the actual in-country work that we do.  Although the patient is always the priority of our work, significant effort is invested in helping the evolution and advancement of the particular heart center and hospital. Working with medical professionals of the same institution for years at a time to develop a center of learning and excellence from a place that would do simple cardiac procedures is one of the most gratifying aspects of my volunteer work. We just don’t go to fix as many patients as possible in the limited time we are in the country.  We develop a year-round strategy to assist with the evolution of a particular institution’s cardiac program. Certainly, the pandemic has had a negative impact on our travel and personal interactions, but it has opened a new era of communication between our centers. Specifically,  we have begun monthly care conferences and topic-directed webinars with our current partners in Shanxi in China.


Besides helping your peers improve their patient care and outcomes, how have you and your team benefited from your volunteer experience?

G. Au: The volunteer experience gives me an opportunity to see and experience healthcare outside of my own world. The transcultural experience helps enrich working relationships with healthcare practitioners from everywhere, knowing that we are working for the good of all children. I feel that I have learned a lot from the healthcare practitioners in terms of how things are done in their own countries. Just because I live and work in such a privileged environment, this does not mean my level of care is superior by any means.

Dr. J. St. Louis: There is no question that the relationships I have developed over the last 14 years of being a volunteer have lasted beyond my time at any institution. Now that I have recently arrived at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, we have begun to work with a new team in China and will hopefully travel there in 2022. This has opened new relationships and friendships that will benefit the children treated in both institutions, in the USA and China.

Our medical volunteer teams come from 14 top teaching and research institutions. Children’s HeartLink currently supports 18 partner hospitals in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam. Through our partnerships, we serve more than 170,000 children per year.  Learn more about our work