168 hours of labour: Zahra’s story

Zahra is from Debre Elias in Northern Ethiopia. Her village is so remote, it takes three hours to walk to the nearest village with electricity. Zahra and her husband, content in their busy farming life, were overjoyed when Zahra became pregnant with her first baby.

A nightmare labour

Being so remote, Zahra did not have access to a health professional, but her pregnancy appeared uncomplicated and, when she went into labour, her mother and village elders were there to help. However, as Zahra’s labour moved from one day to the next without any sign of the baby, the elders knew something was seriously wrong.

Zahra spent an agonising seven days in labour.

She was in constant pain. Finally – too weak to push anymore – her family, desperate with worry, carried her to the nearest clinic on a homemade stretcher.

Zahra’s condition was critical. By the time she reached the clinic she was immediately transferred to a regional hospital. Her life hung precariously in the balance. Surgeons rushed to save her and performed an emergency caesarean.

The surgery saved Zahra’s life, but the full week of labour had taken a heavy toll. Zahra’s baby was stillborn, her leg muscles had constricted and left her with a limp, and the constant pressure of the baby’s head on her pelvic bone left Zahra with a double fistula, leaking urine and faeces.

Things only became worse when Zahra returned to her village. The overpowering stench of her fistula was unbearable for those around her. Her husband left, and the rest of Zahra’s family were unwilling to have her in their home. Zahra was soon living alone in a small isolated hut.

In the hut, it didn’t take long for Zahra’s clothes and bedding to become soaked through with both urine and faeces.

“…to wash my things, I (waited) for a time where most villagers were not at the river otherwise they didn’t allow me (to) wash because of the stench.” – Zahra

Finding hope at Hamlin

Zahra was referred to the Hamlin hospital in Addis Ababa for treatment but tragically it would take her five years to get there. Zahra, ashamed of her condition and afraid of getting lost, was too scared to travel alone, and no one from her village was willing to accompany her. Finally, a cousin took pity on Zahra and brought her to the hospital.

The long labour, and the years of being left untreated, had left her bladder severely damaged. Zahra’s injuries were so severe and complicated that it took five operations over several years to finally close the fistula.

The final surgery, in March of this year, used a diversion technique mastered by the Hamlin surgeons and was a complete success.

Zahra is currently in the hospital’s post-operative ward and finally dry.

She has been overwhelmed by the care she received from the Hamlin team. She has promised to dedicate herself to educating her community about the importance of maternal healthcare during pregnancy. We’ve translated Zahra’s note of thanks to Hamlin supporters below.

A note from Zahra… 

Now the impossible is made possible. I am dry. No more soaked in urine or to feel ashamed of myself.

Dr Catherine (Emaye, ‘Mother’) is an angel sent for me and other rural women like me. My thanks to the whole staff at the hospital who made me to feel like family with their unconditional love.

But mostly, my heartfelt thanks goes to you, for your help to pay for my operation. You don’t know me but because of you, I have my life again. Thank you.

Zahra x

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