Dame Claire Bertschinger - women leaders insight series

Describe your current role

I am the Director for Professional Diploma in Tropical Nursing here at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). I also do volunteer work and I am a patron for several charities in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal and in the UK.

Who has inspired you throughout your career?

I have been fortunate to have met many wonderful, inspirational people throughout my life, but this quote from the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism has always encouraged me: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

My parents always inspired me, encouraging me to try new things and not to be constrained by gender-based assumptions that dictated what a girl should or shouldn’t do. I was constantly learning about brave and innovative women so that when at the age of 18 I decided to learn to fly I didn’t think it was unusual as I knew about Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor?

This, from my Buddhist mentor: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” It is empowering and removes any feelings of helplessness that we may be feeling.

What has been your career highlight?

In 2004 I was really surprised – and delighted - to receive the Women of the YearWindow to the World’ award here in London.  I didn’t think I was anything special and this gave me a bit of a jolt to realise what influence I had and what I could do from that moment on.

But seeing my students graduate has to be, and continues to be, the real highlight. I train 130 post-graduate experienced nurses each year, but in the first couple of days of the course they realise that they need to learn so much more if they are to be of real use in tropical and resource poor settings. By the end, they are changed people, ready for the challenges of working in overseas situations. It is also wonderful to see some go on to study for an MSC or even a PhD and to know how much the PDTN has inspired them to do so.

What challenges did you face in your career and how did you overcome them?

Whilst working with the International Committee of the Red Cross as a field nurse in multiple war zones, I was required to cross the front line of the fighting factions under the protection of the Red Cross to re-supply the medical facilities, evacuate the wounded from the conflict zone to a safe hospital.  

My experience is that war is a man’s game, and arranging a ceasefire as a women was certainly not easy. I was told on more than one occasion that I was only any good for having children.

I just focused firmly on what was important and what had to be done to save as many lives as possible.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in global health?

Getting nurses recognised as experts and as leaders in global health, especially in decision and policy making. 80-90% of health care is delivered by nurses and midwives. And only 10% of these are men.

It is my belief that often doctors are too far removed from the grass roots to be able to understand that you have to build a strong health force from the bottom up not just the top down. 

It is also imperative that nurses have the opportunity to improve their skills, particularly at postgraduate level of Masters degrees and PhD research.

How important is the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference?

The 21st century is the century for women leaders and this conference offers an excellent opportunity for women to exchange ideas, to learn, to network and to support each other to facilitate sustainable change in global health.

In three words what advice would you give to women embarking on their career?

Be the change or be the change you wish to see!