Catherine Hamlin, Fierce Girl

Dr Catherine Hamlin was a woman who defended the right for every woman and girl to live a healthy and full life. She was committed to her patients, treating them with respect and love. In the most recent episode of the ABC podcast Fierce Girls, nine-year-old Eliza tells Catherine’s story from a different perspective. Eliza explains that, in devoting her life to caring for the poorest women, Catherine became a fierce girl.

Catherine, a fierce woman

Catherine was a fierce girl, dedicated to caring for the women that no one else would. She devoted over 60 years of her life to caring for those who had suffered obstetric fistula, a traumatic childbirth injury. Through love and respect, Catherine helped treat over 60,000 patients; providing rehabilitation, counselling, literacy classes, and nutrition in the process.⁠

Throughout her life, Catherine demonstrated resilience, determination, grace, intelligence and compassion. She studied medicine at the University of Sydney at a time when young women were discouraged from practicing medicine. Catherine moved to the other side of the world to set up a midwifery school with her husband, the late Dr Reg Hamlin, encountering new challenges, including a medical condition – fistula – which she had never encountered in Australia.

Catherine co-founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital – the global centre of excellence in fistula treatment – and pioneered a refined surgical technique for fistula repair surgery. In the midst of famine, civil war, and political turmoil, Catherine continued to treat fistula patients. Catherine established a rehabilitation and reintegration centre called Desta Mender where patients can recuperate and learn new skills, with which they can rebuild their lives. And in 2007, Catherine’s perseverance paid off when she finally opened a midwifery school, the Hamlin College of Midwives, which has produced 170 best-practice midwives who treat rural communities.

Catherine’s work was guided by her compassion. As she said, “I just love these women. My feeling for them, my compassion for them, is unending.”

Listen to the Fierce Girls podcast episode on Catherine here.

Eliza, a fierce girl

The ABC’s Fierce Girls podcast featured an episode on Catherine’s work to eradicate fistula. Written and narrated by nine-year-old Eliza, the episode tells Catherine’s story – from boarding school student to medical pioneer and humanitarian working for the poorest women in Ethiopia. We were able to ask Eliza a few questions about her experience recording the podcast. Below are her answers.

When did you first hear about Dr Catherine Hamlin?

I really loved the Fierce Girl episode about Gabi Hollows and I wanted to write about someone a bit like that. My mum helped me look up the internet and find some stories of other girls that were doctors who helped people and Catherine Hamlin really stood out to me.

What do you think makes a fierce girl?

A fierce girl believes in herself and doesn’t give up, is brave, thinks about others and is kind.

Why do you think Catherine was fierce?

Because she went to another country that was very far away and very different from Australia. Catherine never gave up when things got hard, like when her husband died. Catherine was also very kind to the women of Ethiopia and treated them with love and care when no one else could or would.

What’s your favourite thing about Catherine’s story and what’s something that Catherine did that inspires you?

My favourite part of the story is that each girl gets given a beautiful, comfy blanket that must make them feel special and cared for. Catherine helped so many girls and women over a long time, I think that is inspiring to keep helping people for so many years.

Why do you think we should look after women and girls on the other side of the world?

It’s not fair that some women and girls don’t get the same sort of life that I get in Australia, so we should help them.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your hobbies and what would you like to be when you’re older?

I am now 9 and in Year 3 . I live in Sydney with my mum, dad and little sister. I love to swim, ride my bike, dance and I play the french horn. I am not sure what sort of job I want when I am older but I would like to travel the world and help people somehow.

When Catherine was your age, the year was 1932 and life was very different for young girls. Do you think there are any similarities between a young Catherine and yourself?

Yes, I like to be adventurous by playing outside, swimming and I love horses – but I don’t want to go to boarding school!

How did you first hear about the ABC Fierce Girls competition?

I love to listen to Fierce Girls and I heard about the competition when listening to some old episodes. I could not wait to enter and couldn’t sleep

Your story explores Catherine’s life from childhood onward. What was the research process for your story?

I looked up information about Catherine on the internet, like from you website. I also watched some YouTube videos like the time Catherine was on the Oprah Winfrey show and listened to bits of other podcasts about Catherine. I also had a telephone call with Samantha Turnbull, the writer of Fierce Girls who helped edit my story.

Your story included some fairly complicated concepts like gynaecology and fistula injuries. Did you have trouble understanding them at first?

Kind of; my mum had to help me understand what they meant and help me learn [how] to pronounce obstetrician and gynaecologist!

What was the recording session like? What was your favourite part about producing the story?

I couldn’t go into the studio because of COVID-19 so it was recorded from home on my dad’s mobile phone. The team from Fierce Girls are really nice and helped me do the whole thing. Sometimes I said the wrong thing and I had to say it again. My favourite part was hearing the final version of the story with the sound effects.

If you could say one thing to other girls your age, all over the world, what would it be?

Follow your dreams and never give up!

From all of us at Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, thank you Eliza for sharing Catherine’s story. We think you’re a fierce girl.
Team Hamlin x

Click here to listen to the Fierce Girls podcast episode on Dr Catherine Hamlin – written and narrated by Eliza.

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