Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 22, 2007
Pro-life midwife takes ministry to Russian Far East
In a society where abortion is rampant, she will witness to life
"My primary goal is improving women's and children's health."
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Pregnancy and childbirth and babies have always fascinated Heather Holtslag. So she went to the Philippines to become a midwife and for two years she lived and served among the poorest of the poor.
Now, just months after being certified as a professional midwife, Holtslag, 28, is getting ready to go to Russia to help improve the lot of women and babies there.
The Mother of God Mission Society, a Catholic mission society that operates several women support centres in the Russian Far East, invited the St. Albert midwife to lead its operations there.
While a midwife's main task is to help women through pregnancy, Holtslag's efforts will contain a pro-life focus in a society where abortion is rampant.
3 to 9 abortions
The average woman in Russia has had between three and nine abortions in her lifetime and some have had as many as 20. Holtslag hopes to reduce the number of abortions.
"Because this is a Catholic mission, all of the women's centres provide services and referrals and counselling that are in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly on its stance for life," she said.
Build up families
"My personal goal is to really help build up families there and reach out to women spiritually, emotionally, physically and medically and show them that there are other options in their life."
Holtslag will be stationed in Vladivostok, a former military port city of 800,000 people located on the most southern tip of the Russian Far East.
This strategic city - under a military lockdown for about 70 years under the former Soviet regime - reopened to non-residents in 1992. That's when the Mother of God Mission Society got its start.
Holtslag, who is currently working as a medical secretary at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, was recently appointed director of development for the mission society's women support centres, which offer a whole list of programs and services including crisis pregnancy counselling, pregnancy testing, natural family planning and adoption service referrals.
Women's support centres
Currently there are seven women's support centres - most of them based in churches, although they have working relationships with maternity hospitals for providing medical care such as prenatal care or ultrasound exams.
"I'm very excited about it," Holtslag said. "Of course I'm nervous about it and slightly terrified because of all the unknowns but I don't have any reason to doubt that God will continue to be with me and take care of me over there."
This is the first time the Mother of God Mission Society has worked with a midwife and Holtslag is excited about the possibilities.
"Midwifery has proven to be an effective avenue for ministering to people - physically, emotionally and spiritually," she said.
As director of development, her job will be to make the existing program more accessible to women. She is also expected to open more women's support centres across the Far East. "But my primary goal is improving women's and children's health," she said.
Holtslag will leave for Vladivostok Nov. 18 and expects to stay there for at least a year. Her position is voluntary so she is counting on support from her parish, St. Basil's Ukrainian Catholic Parish, and on volunteer donations to pay for her living expenses in the Far East. The mission society will pay for her flights and accommodation.
"It's about helping the people who need the help," she said. "When I was in the Philippines doing all of these services for free and getting very little sleep and just being very busy, I felt more alive than that I had in any other job I've been in.
"I really feel like God has put this call in my life to serve women and their families and to go to those people that need that help."
Holtslag decided to become a midwife because pregnancy and childbirth and babies have always fascinated her. "I love journeying with women through their pregnancies and their births," she said. "It is such an honour and a privilege to be able to take part in that special time in their lives."
After a year or so serving as a trained doula in Edmonton and St. Albert for friends who were expecting babies, Holtslag enrolled in the National Midwifery School in the U.S. in 2005 and spent the next two years living and serving as a missionary midwife among the poorest of the poor in Davao City, Philippines. She completed her courses by correspondence through New Life International Midwifery School, a mission-based school for training medical missionaries.
In Davao, a city of 1.4 million in the southern Philippines, Holtslag served in a birthing centre where all maternity services were provided free so women could receive quality health care during their pregnancies and births.
"The people we reached the most were the poorest of the poor - women living in the slum areas who couldn't afford health care otherwise," explained Holtslag. "I oversaw over 250 births in those two years and 99 of them I delivered myself."
It was an "incredibly busy" time for Holtslag, who had to write numerous research papers, be on call with her clients and put in at least 30 hours a week at the clinic.
Because of the socio-economic background of the women who came to the clinic, Holtslag often had to deal with "a lot of complications all the time" - from malnutrition to premature labour.
"Pretty much every complication that can happen during pregnancy and birth we saw," she said.
No doctors were present during deliveries, recalled Holtslag. "I had many emergencies but I was trained to deal with those emergencies."
A major role model in Holtslag's decision to become a midwife and in her career path has been the Virgin Mary - "just modelling her willingness and her attitude about serving and trusting in the Lord.
"When she herself was pregnant she journeyed to see her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant and stayed with her through the end of her pregnancy. And she was probably at Elizabeth's birth too, maybe even acting as a doula.
"A lot of the things in her life that we read about in the Scriptures - being a refugee, having to walk blindly in faith at times - I just try to emulate in my own career."