A stroll down memory lane with Birru

Birru and Catherine

We took a stroll down memory lane with Dr Catherine Hamlin’s good friend and colleague Birru to reflect on the past 60 years of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

— 60,000 women with an obstetric fistula have been treated
— 145 midwives have graduated from the Hamlin College of Midwives
— 40,000 babies have been delivered by Hamlin midwives in the past three years alone
— 5 regional hospitals established across Ethiopia
— A rehabilitation centre and training facility for recovering patients
— Over 50 rural Hamlin Midwifery Clinics operating in remote areas in Ethiopia

This is the legacy of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia over the past 60 years. To celebrate this important anniversary we spoke to Birru, who has been there since day one.

The early days

When Birru started working with Drs. Catherine and Reg Hamlin 60 years ago things were a little different. Catherine and Reg were working from the Princess Tsehai Hospital in Addis Ababa, where they treated 300 fistula patients in the first three years of arriving. Birru recalls the challenges they faced in these early days, from medicine shortages to a lack of space – but they always found a way!

“They don’t give up with everyday challenges they face at the hospital, rather they come up with their own solutions,” recalls Birru.

In fact, Birru remembers the day Reg asked him to build several small rooms to store medicine and medical equipment, despite never having built anything like that before. Nonetheless, Birru who worked as the resident gardener at the time, managed to construct ‘Birru town’ as termed by the Hamlins’ 5-year-old son Richard.

“Finally, to my surprise, I had completed five strong huts which we used them to store drugs, as well as offices and waiting areas” says Birru.

From here, Birru recalls how Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia was born. As word spread about the pioneering fistula treatment the Hamlin’s were performing, more and more women came through their doors in search of a cure, until they grew out of their space at the government hospital they were initially working from.

Soon construction began on the new hospital by the river dedicated to treating and preventing obstetric fistula – Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Today there are five more Hamlin Fistula Hospitals spread across Ethiopia.

An unwavering dedication

However, one thing that has not changed over these many decades, according to Birru, is the devotion and compassion the Hamlin’s showed towards their fistula patients.

‘The doctors’ passion for work is so amazing. They treat each and every patient with love and affection,” explains Birru.

Catherine’s dream is to eradicate obstetric fistula forever, and she has spent the last 60 of her 95 years working towards realising this. So too has her good friend Birru whose dedication and commitment to the work of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia for the last 60 is remarkable.

For Birru it is more than work – it is his home, his family, the place where he became a father and started a family of his own and now that he is 80, it will be where he spends his retirement alongside his dear friend Catherine.

When asked to reflect on the moment that stood out the most over the past 60 years, Birru responded with this:

“It is the saddest one, but Dr. Reg’s death was so hurting for Emaye (‘Mother’ Catherine). She almost gave up. I remember one morning, I went down to her residence for greeting. Unusually she was sitting on the veranda looking broken-hearted, tears flooding from her eyes down her face. I came closer, sat behind, and cried with her for a while. Then I said this ‘do not worry, I promise to be with you forever and serve you even for free to realise your dream. She looked into my eyes, and hugged me with thanks. It was so heartbreaking. But afterwards she recovered well and became much stronger than ever to continue the good work to reach today.”

You can learn more about Catherine’s journey to eradicate fistula forever by following our 60for60 blog series.

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