April 9, 2019
Lete and Catherine, 57 years of friendship
“Lete is our Hospital’s inspiration and in her quiet and dignified Ethiopian way has helped thousands of patients who have received her loving care. Her character shines out by the life she lives and her serenity is seen by all.” – Dr Catherine Hamlin
In the first bed on the left of the main ward at Dr Catherine Hamlin’s fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, a blanket suddenly stirs and then over the top sheet a mop of black hair appears, two dark eyes and finally a smile that lights up the morning.
This is Lete, one of the mainstays of the hospital, and of Catherine’s life.
“I’m just having a small rest here,” she says, grinning. “I work so hard, you know. But I love working hard here. There is so much to do!”
Lete, or Letekidance Gebre Yohannes as she’s formally known, is a favourite of all the staff at the hospital and quickly becomes a trusted and valued friend of every patient who arrives.
She’s in a very special position: as a teenager she first met Catherine and her late husband Reg in 1961, two years after they arrived in Ethiopia to work at the Princess Teshai Memorial Hospital.
Lete was suffering terrible injuries following an horrific five-day labour, and had made the torturous journey from her home along the mountainous plateaux of the northern Shoa province.
An examination revealed an unfolding tragedy – Lete’s baby lay dead inside her, while there was a large fistula in her rectum and her bladder was destroyed.
The Hamlins went quickly to work but, while they were able to save her life, they were never able to cure her of her incontinence. Instead, they inserted a catheter and Lete, overwhelmed with gratitude, vowed she would work at the hospital for them forever more.
And it’s a pledge she’s kept for the past 57 years.
“They treated me as their child, and I was one of their family,” says Lete today, now aged 69. “They looked after me, and I’ve always worked hard to help them. Catherine’s always been wonderful to me.”
As soon as Lete was well enough, she set to work and when the Hamlins launched their specialist fistula hospital, she transferred with them to run the outpatients’ department and one of the hospital stores.
But her life was never easy. When her kidneys started to fail, a great friend of the Hamlins, urologist Dr Gordon Williams, flew out from London to operate to save her life again. It was a third chance at life but, tragically, she was paralysed in a car accident some years later.
Yet being confined to a wheelchair never sapped her spirits. An engaging, bubbly personality, she still whizzed all around the hospital giving patients physiotherapy to help them recover and counselled new arrivals to allay their fears about what to expect.
“I talk to them and tell them about my experiences so they don’t feel shy or nervous,” Lete says. “The nurses give them the information they need but I’m there to help them with everything else. I just love being busy anyway!”
These days, that first bed on the left is Lete’s home and it’s from there she talks to patients or wheels herself out to go in search of anyone needing some extra reassurance or treatment.
But there’s one special person who visits her two or three times a week. “Catherine still makes sure to come and see me as often as she can,” Lete smiles. “She raised me and I grew up with her and see her as my mother.
“She always asks me what I’ve been doing and who I’ve seen. When she’s not able to visit, I know she misses me, and I miss her. But I love my work with the patients, and love being here.”
Story: Sue Williams, originally published July 2018