By Reach For A Dream
Dr. Boikhutso's childhood dream was to help people by becoming a doctor, although it took two life-altering experiences and a dream trip to visit her aunt in the United States for her to realise the specifics of how that could be achieved.
In a story that is as inspiring as it is remarkable, Dr. Nkuli Boikhutso, CEO of Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, shares her journey from surviving a bomb blast and ovarian cancer as a child to leading one of South Africa's most prominent children's hospitals.
Dr. Boikhutso's early life was marked by unimaginable challenges.
In 1991, she survived a bomb blast in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, and spent time in hospital receiving treatment. A few years later, she received a devastating diagnosis of ovarian cancer, when she was just 14 years old. Despite this, she remained hopeful, drawing strength from her supportive family and the medical team around her, including Sister Sadie, the head nurse manager of oncology at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
It was Sister Sadie who introduced Dr. Boikhutso to the Reach For A Dream Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has been inspiring hope and making dreams come true for children with life-threatening illnesses for over three decades.
"My dream was to visit my aunt, who lived in Washington DC," Dr. Boikhutso recalls. Thanks to the Foundation, which arranged a trip to the United States, she lived her dream. It provided her with a glimpse into a world beyond her familiar surroundings in Soweto.
"Through this experience, I realised that it’s not just the hospital or school that exists but that there’s a whole world out there that you can look forward to living in, seeing, and exploring. You are not defined by the illness you have," she says.
Today, as a cancer survivor and the CEO of Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, Dr. Boikhutso uses her personal experiences and professional expertise to ensure that every child under the care of the Hospital receives the best possible treatment. "The experiences I had growing up confirmed that being a doctor was what I wanted to do. Specifically, I wanted to work and help sick children like me and ensure that they receive the help and care they need," she reflects.
The opportunity to lead Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital was a transformative experience for Dr. Boikhutso. "I am not the type who likes to be at the forefront. I am a background person who wants to do the work and get it done,” she admits. She approaches her leadership role with grace and pragmatism, understanding that the hospital environment can be unpredictable and challenging.
Dr. Boikhutso is deeply attuned to the significant impact that chronic illnesses have on children and their families. “It keeps me going when I hear stories from parents, who are so grateful," she says. "A sick child has a significant impact on the family, especially on the parents, and I feel so proud to be a part of their treatment journey."
The resilience of the children treated at the hospital inspires her, as does the crucial role of hope in their journey. "Generally, children are resilient, but hope provides the motivation they need to get better," she reflects. Her own childhood experience with cancer taught her about the power of hope and dreams.
“The work that Reach For A Dream does, and the motto of inspiring hope helped me recover. Medicine is one thing but to be psychologically pumped up to go through the treatment, you need that hope. You need people to inspire you, and that’s the importance of survivors – to encourage and give others hope,” she shares.
When asked what message she would share with children, parents, and caregivers facing challenging times, Dr. Boikhutso responds, “Dreaming is free. We can all do it, and we can dream about anything. It doesn’t have to be related to where you are now; you can be what you want in the dream, so keep dreaming.”
Dr. Boikhutso’s journey embodies the mission of the Reach for a Dream Foundation: to give children battling life-threatening illnesses a magical experience that allows them to reclaim their childhood, lost amidst hospital wards and medical procedures.
"Dr. Boikhutso's story is a powerful testament to the transformative impact of dreams. Her journey from a dreamer to a survivor and now, a healer, is an inspiration for all children battling life-threatening illnesses. It is a vivid reminder that hope, strength, and courage can turn even the most challenging situations into a springboard for remarkable achievements. At Reach For A Dream, we believe in the healing power of dreams, and Dr. Boikhutso is a shining example of that belief coming to life," says Julia Sotirianakos, CEO of Reach For A Dream.