Beyond borders to help more women

A life-time of caring 

I was privileged to spend time with Dr Catherine Hamlin in Ethiopia recently as she was nearing her 94th birthday.

Catherine first came to Ethiopia almost 60 years ago. She still remembers the warnings from the other medical staff that: “the fistula patients will break your heart”. That was at the start of a secondment to the country – together with her husband Reg – that was only meant to last three years.

Back then in 1959, there was virtually no fistula treatment available in Ethiopia.

She had never seen an obstetric fistula. Today more than half a century later, she still vividly remembers the first patient she saw. “She was a beautiful young woman in urine-soaked, ragged clothes, sitting alone in the outpatients department away from other patients.”

Her heart broke.

‘Emaye’ – a mother to all 

Today, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is a healthcare network of more than 550 local staff, servicing six hospitals, the Desta Mender rehabilitation centre, the Hamlin College of Midwives and 40 rural Hamlin Midwifery Clinics.

Yet as I walk with Catherine, on a sunny morning through the grounds of Hamlin Hospital in Addis Ababa, it is acutely clear that Catherine’s fight to eradicate obstetric fistula is one that is very personal and very emotional for this heroic, yet modest, woman.

While we walk we are repeatedly stopped and thanked by patient after patient.

The women call Catherine ‘Emaye’ meaning Mother. There are many tears, many hugs and kisses. It is clear that each woman has finally found healing and relief after enduring a long, painful, humiliating and isolating hell. They are now released into a second chance at life. It is a life back with their families, back with their communities.

One of Catherine’s often quoted verses is, “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Matthew 7:12 

It is an approach that is powerfully evident when you spend time with Catherine Hamlin. Every women she greets, is precious, every embrace is a tribute to a life-changing moment in that person’s life. And yet every encounter further strengthens her resolve to eradicate obstetric fistula from Ethiopia.

It is a life’s work and one she is as passionate about now, as she was when she first arrived in Ethiopia in 1959.

Impact in Ethiopia

After my time with Catherine, I was privileged to spend some time with the clinical team at the hospital. Every bed in the fistula ward was full of patients either recovering or preparing for their surgery. The surgeons were operating that day and were expected to do seven fistula surgeries. Many of these surgeons are now the best in the world.

The hospital is full and bustling. The difference in the patients before and after treatment is impossible to describe. Journalist Sue Williams recently described the hospital’s admissions department as one of the most forlorn places in the world. The women coming there are shy, withdrawn, quiet and sad. Following their treatment by the Hamlin team there is a miraculous metamorphosis and what emerges are women who are joyful, laughing, smiling and happy.

Over the past 60 years, Catherine and her team have treated more than 50,000 women and transformed the lives of those women.

Ethiopia is estimated to have up to 39,000 women living with fistula. And the work that Catherine has spearheaded here has changed the landscape, putting fistula on the agenda for government, international NGOs and fistula care providers.

The need in Uganda 

Unfortunately, in nearby Uganda it is estimated that up to 200,000 women are suffering with the condition. I visited Uganda on this same trip and spent some time with our new partner Terrewode and its extraordinary founder Alice Emasu (pictured below). Terrewode is a community-based organisation and has worked with obstetric fistula survivors in Uganda since 1999. Terrewode’s values are based on a woman’s fundamental right to quality health care. 

I met many women who had lived with a fistula for a decade or longer. I saw chronically under-resourced and under-funded public hospitals and clinics groaning under the strain of the volume of patients, lack of medical staff and resources.

Even despite the meagre resources available, Terrewode is the bright spot. Women suffering fistula are brought for treatment at fistula camps or other hospitals and are cared for after their surgery.

They do a remarkable job with about 1,000 volunteers around the country – many of whom are former fistula sufferers. These women advocate for prevention, and seek women suffering with a fistula so they can bring them into Terrewode for treatment and rehabilitation.

A new fistula frontier

The need here in Uganda is just too great to ignore.

It is why we are helping Terrewode to build a fistula hospital replicating the Hamlin Model of Care. The Hamlin clinical team is involved in the design of the hospital and will train the surgeons so this becomes a centre of excellence for the treatment of obstetric fistula in Uganda.  

Click here for more information about our work in Uganda. 

When I spoke to Catherine about the work in Uganda, she was happy that the expertise and experience honed in Ethiopia will now change the lives of women in Uganda. 

They will receive treatment and a life they deserve. A life every woman deserves.

Author: Carolyn Hardy – Chief Executive Officer, Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation 

You can help establish our life changing new fistula treatment facility in Uganda and help Dr Catherine Hamlin eradicate fistula. Forever.

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