Celebrating the woman who gave life to an idea

A mother to all

Known as ‘Emaye’ (Amharic for ‘Mother’) to all who visit the hospital, Catherine has changed lives through the love, care and world-class treatment she has established at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

“Everyone knows about Dr Hamlin; everybody loves Dr Hamlin; everybody is inspired by Dr Hamlin.” – Ephraim Aklilu, former staff at Desta Mender

Obstetric fistula is so poorly understood that many women arriving at Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital have faced terrible isolation and judgement.

Being welcomed with love, respect and compassion at Hamlin is a first step in restoring these women’s lives before they have even had surgery.

From her very first days in Ethiopia, Catherine’s care went far beyond that of a surgeon. She became known for her quiet, calm demeanour, holding patients’ hands during check-ups, calming nerves before surgery and giving comfort to those not yet cured. In the early days, she made operating gowns and bedsheets for the hospital on her own sewing machine. Today, her personal connection and fundamental respect for women suffering the indignity of a fistula has been instilled in every doctor, nurse and staff member at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

Mekdes was just 14 when she came to Hamlin with a severe fistula injury. She was operated on recently by Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s clinical team and has since returned home totally cured. “I become speechless and burst into tears whenever I think of expressing my gratitude to Emaye.” – Mekdes

A sister who inspired

Catherine has lived in Ethiopia for most of her adult life, yet she inspires people all over the world – including her family in Australia and the UK.

When preparing to open Desta Mender, the rehabilitation and reintegration centre outside of Addis Ababa, Catherine knew that her younger brother Jock and his wife Louise would be the perfect people to help nurture this centre in the early years.

Jock and Louise took leave from their farm near Tamworth, NSW, and arrived in Ethiopia in 2003. They quickly got to work setting up generators, clean water supplies and establishing a dairy farm, so that longer-term patients – women with severe fistula injuries who would be staying long term – could receive the care they needed.

Jock and Louise quickly saw how practical life skills could give these women hope, dignity and a new identity, far beyond their life as a fistula sufferer.

With the same care and detail that marks everything Catherine does, Jock and Louise helped patients learn farming and gardening skills and they arranged for teachers to visit and train patients.

Jock and Louise Nicholson’s work at Desta Mender was the first step in the development of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Program, a program that in 2018 alone, saw 912 patients complete literacy and numeracy courses.

A friend to everyone

As Catherine became well known in Ethiopia for her work, she graced the halls of government, meeting advocates who would help develop and protect what would become her ‘Hospital by the River’.

She became a close friend to the family of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor. When the royal family was overthrown and imprisoned, she would visit them on Sundays to give them cakes and books – and smuggle out the occasional note for someone on the outside. This friendship continued long after the republic was established and the royal family released.

Catherine also continues to inspire the people she trained alongside in Australia.

One such person is Dr Val Colley who worked with Reg and Catherine at Crown Street Women’s Hospital in the late 1940s.

Val has supported their work from the beginning and has left a bequest for the Hamlin hospital in her will. She smiles about the early days of Reg and Catherine’s courtship. Val recalls, “Catherine would sometimes leave work before Reg and walk down the road so they could go to dinner together. They thought they were keeping it a secret but everybody knew. We were happy for them.”

Dr Catherine Hamlin’s work in Ethiopia and her fundraising and advocacy efforts around the world have made her known to people from all walks of life. She has spread the story of her patients far and wide.

“Congratulations to you… I believe this is God’s work on Earth, what you are doing.” – Oprah Winfrey

A woman who kept going

Dr Catherine Hamlin’s commitment to her work is unrivalled. Through power outages, water shortages, political upheaval and the loss of her husband, Catherine continued, knowing that the work she was doing was important and life changing.

After Reg’s death in 1993, Catherine was faced with a hard decision. She and Reg had set up the hospital, made future plans, and faced countless obstacles together. The idea of going on alone was overwhelming.

No one would have thought less of her for leaving Ethiopia to be with her family. With the hospital well established, she could have retired at 69, having made a huge difference to thousands of women. Many people would have returned to Australia, but Catherine stayed in Ethiopia. Surrounded and comforted by her Ethiopian family and friends, Catherine carried on through her grief, knowing that she had a hospital to run – and funds to raise.

As a result, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia today has operated on more than 60,000 Ethiopian women to repair their fistula injuries and restore their dignity. “I’m still trying to wake the world up and tell people about the women we treat. It warms my heart that so many Australians have supported our work.” – Dr Catherine Hamlin

Dr Catherine Hamlin operated until she was 89. She still lives on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital that she and Reg built, continuing to inspire staff and patients. She will celebrate her 95th birthday surrounded by her Ethiopian staff and patients, loved and respected.

An honorary Ethiopian

One of only a handful of foreigners to receive such an honour, Catherine was awarded honorary Ethiopian citizenship in 2012 for her decades of service to Ethiopian women. Catherine’s work and name is well known in Ethiopia and she is a hero to all.

“Hers is quite simply an incredible story. A tender, loving story about giving back hope and dignity to the most marginalised, ostracised women in the world. To those women and many more she will always be a heroine.” – Tesfaye Yacob, former CEO Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

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