Catherine’s impact, in the words of a dear friend

One of the pioneers of the global safe motherhood campaign, Dr Barbara Kwast, has been visiting Dr Catherine Hamlin to congratulate her and the staff of the Hamlin College of Midwives on the 10 year Jubilee of her midwifery college in Addis Ababa.

“It’s astonishing that Catherine has been here for nearly 60 years now, and midwifery training was what first brought her here,” laughs Dr Kwast. “And now, finally, she has realised her dream. Midwives are being trained and sent out to all areas of Ethiopia to help women safely have their babies.”

Dr Kwast, from The Netherlands, is one of the most experienced midwifery experts in the world, having worked all over Africa in community obstetrics, including in Malawi, Niger and Ethiopia, where she lectured at the capital’s university.

It was there that she first met Catherine and her late husband Reg, in 1971, 12 years after they first arrived in the country on a three-year contract to train midwives. Instead, having discovered the horrendous frequency of fistula destroying young women’s lives, they’d devoted themselves to repairing their injuries and trying to prevent new occurrences.

Dr Kwast, working as an international consultant on maternal health, knew exactly how critical that work could be.

“Both Catherine and Reg were so dedicated to eradicating the problem and helping those poor women get their lives back,” she says. “It was incredible to see. Reg would always say to his students that when they dealt with ‘fistula pilgrims’ as he called them, they had to replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh.

“And that’s what the pair of them always did. They cared so much. Catherine was always so gentle and accommodating and simply cared so much for her patients and always tried to answer everyone’s needs. She was a fabulous role model for me.”

Dr Kwast, now 80, is an acclaimed expert in the field of maternal health and was working with the World Health Organization when the Safe Motherhood Initiative was launched at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1987. From that time, the number of deaths during pregnancy and childbirth have dropped by 43 per cent, yet still remains tragically high, she says.

Every day, 800 women die; [there are] 7,100 stillbirths, and 7,000 newborns die,” she told a recent conference. “Women shouldn’t die giving life. Women are not pregnant nine months to have a stillbirth at the end.”

She was invited in 2007 to support the College with the training of midwives in emergency obstetric care during their attachment to a remote rural hospital in Attat, and now visits regularly to learn about the pioneering development of the College.

“Some of the students have delivered up to 100 babies by the time they graduate,” she says. “The minimum requirement is 20, so the difference is huge. Their midwives are working in very remote areas of the country so they have to have a level of expertise to cope with the most difficult cases.

“I believe they’re now turning out the best midwives in Ethiopia, if not in Africa.”

One of Catherine’s closest friends, she says the pair love to sit together in the evening, quietly reading. She marvels that Catherine has only recently given up fistula surgery. But she delights in the fact that Catherine has now finally accomplished her dearest wish – to send trained, qualified midwives to clinics throughout her adopted home, Ethiopia.

“It’s marvellous that nearly 60 years on, this is happening,” Dr Kwast says. “While I think it was painful for Catherine to give up operating the women herself, she’s passing on her legacy in this very valuable way.”

Author: Sue Williams – Journalist for the Australian

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation here by June 30 to help realise Dr Catherine Hamlin’s dream of eradicating fistula in Ethiopia. 

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