Catherine Hamlin was a living, breathing saint

By Carolyn Hardy, Chief Executive Officer, Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation 

You can live a lifetime and not meet a saint. Catherine Hamlin was a living, breathing saint.

I’ve worked in the international development sector for nearly twenty years – mostly with large, respected and well known organisations with many talented and committed colleagues. However, none more so than Dr Catherine Hamlin. Catherine was unique, entirely different in the world of aid in that she did this on her own, without the backing of a large institution or the safety net those institutions provide. Her achievements were through her sheer force of will and a deep love for those in need.

This pioneering Australian surgeon could be feisty, sometimes stubborn and always passionate. She was a tireless champion for women who were among the most marginalised and shunned in the world.

Catherine Hamlin died peacefully late last week (18 March 2020). She was 96 years old.

She died in her home on the grounds of Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, the site where her pioneering obstetric surgery gave new life to tens of thousands of women.

I first met Catherine on these same grounds in mid-2016. Amid the dust and heat of the chaotic capital, the hospital gardens were an oasis of beauty and calm. It was a place of colour, of hope and of love.

Despite being well into her 90’s Catherine was walking the grounds – as she did every day. Catherine had a sparkle in her eye and she was always quick with a kind word to women in the wards awaiting life-changing surgery to repair their fistula injury.

Mother Teresa once said: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”.

It is a notion that epitomised the work of Catherine Hamlin.  To her, every woman mattered. Every woman suffering, in pain and in isolation, broke her heart.

It was a heart that was first broken more than 60 years ago when she and her husband, Reg, arrived in Ethiopia for what was meant to be a three year stay.

The Hamlin’s had never seen an obstetric fistula case before. The sight of these women, wearing urine-soaked rags, sitting by themselves in a hospital waiting room, was heartbreaking.

An obstetric fistula is an injury caused by a prolonged, unrelieved obstructed labour which leaves a woman incontinent and often with other injuries and paralysis. The mother usually gives birth to a dead baby and her grief is compounded by her being humiliated and cut off from her community.

Catherine and Reg went about dramatically transforming the maternal healthcare landscape for the women of Ethiopia. And when Reg died of cancer in 1993, Catherine stayed in Ethiopia and continued their work.

In most cases it takes a simple, two-hour operation to correct an obstetric fistula. Given that some women have lived with the condition for more than a decade, the transformation this single operation makes is breathtaking.

The operation can cost as little as $700.  All patients at Hamlin hospitals are treated free of charge, as most are too poor to pay.

From humble beginnings – and with the support of thousands of donors – Catherine Hamlin built a network of six hospitals across Ethiopia employing more than 550 Ethiopian professionals – many of whom were trained by Catherine – a rehabilitation centre, the Hamlin College of Midwives and over 50 Hamlin-supported midwifery clinics.

During her time in Ethiopia, over 60,000 women have successfully had their fistula injuries repaired – more than any other facility in the world – thousands more women have had fistula injuries prevented and fistula surgeons from all over the world have trained at Hamlin.

Catherine woke the world up to the plight of women with obstetric fistula injuries! She put her patients first, creating the Hamlin Model of Care decades before the now widely adopted principles of respectful maternity care.

It is tragic and sad that even today, women suffer with an obstetric fistula, often for years. Many don’t know there is a treatment, many suffer unnecessarily, sometimes for a lifetime. In Ethiopia some 70% of births are not attended by any medical practitioner or midwife.

The ‘lucky ones’ make it to a Hamlin Fistula Hospital. And when they do, they are embraced, they are loved and they are given new life.

The last time I spoke with Catherine in Ethiopia, her concern continued to be the eradication of fistula in Ethiopia.

She was confident this dream would be achieved and that the work she devoted her life to would continue.  It is estimated fistula could be eradicated from Ethiopia by 2030.

And so one procedure at a time. One life-transforming victory at a time, Catherine created an extraordinary legacy of hope and love.

It was humbling and inspiring to spend time with Catherine. If ever we needed proof of the good in humanity, we only need to think of her.

I was inspired by Catherine, her drive, her commitment, her love. I for one do want to see her dream come to fruition – that we can eradicate fistula from Ethiopia and in doing so, go some way towards eradicating it from our world altogether.

It is my privilege to work now to continue her legacy, to see the fulfilment of her dream.

The work of the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation is only possible because of the thousands of donors who give so generously to this cause.

With her passing it is my hope that many others will join us in our efforts to finally eradicate this debilitating, humiliating, treatable condition. It would be a fitting tribute to a life of love and service.

Together we can make Catherine’s dream a reality. Click here to help eradicate fistula. Forever.

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