Opening a Hospital at a Time of Revolution

Modern Ethiopian history has been greatly shaped by the upheaval of the Derg Revolution, regime and ensuing civil war of the 1970s. Throughout the turmoil, Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin continued to courageously care for their obstetric fistula patients and opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

Confusion abounds

Following famine, a failure to implement significant economic and political reforms, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the Armed Forces Coordinating Committee in September 1974. Later renamed the Derg (Amharic for the ‘committee’), the group’s ascension to power saw the abolition of the monarchy and feudalism.

During the early days of the revolution, great confusion abounded: people did not know who the people behind the Derg were, nor their political ideology. Despite being shocked and disturbed by the coup d’état unfolding before their eyes, the Hamlins remained assured in their need to “keep their heads down and continue working for [their] patients.”

It was in this atmosphere that Reg and Catherine established the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

A tumultuous transition

In her autobiography. ‘The Hospital By the River’, written with John Little, Catherine recalls the mass upheaval occurring in civil and political society during the mid 1970s. A notable change for the Hamlins was the Derg’s relocation of the Princess Tsehai Hospital to another, abandoned hospital, the Black Lion Hospital. The site of the Princess Tsehai Hospital was repurposed into a military hospital. In early 1975, the Hamlins were given three days to move out – even though they were not quite ready to move into the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Catherine and Reg did not have a house to move into but the Derg allowed them to stay in their old house for another six months and to house the patients in a hostel.

The Hamlins were able to acquire any items not needed by the Black Lion Hospital – as such, they were able to source beds, lockers, examination couches and other medical equipment. In preparation for the opening of the hospital, Catherine and Reg were keen to not draw attention to the hospital during such tumultuous times. On 24th May 1975 Reg and Catherine quietly “cut a ribbon strung between two chairs in the drawing room… and declared the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital open.”

Getting by with a little help from friends

Managing the hospital was complicated by the transitional period, with every day activities hampered by frequent power cuts and a lack of generators. As complicated as the establishment and running of a hospital was, Catherine was not daunted. Their cause was helped by the generosity of others. The Red Sea Mission Team volunteered to help with the nursing at the hospital, covering night duty until Catherine and reg were able to find permanent staff. Hamlin gardener and family friend, Birru would help Reg stock up on food supplies for the patients, filling up Reg’s old Volkswagen with “sacks of grain, macaroni and lentils” – sometimes Catherine would find the car filled to the brim with rolls of toilet paper. At first, the laundry was staffed by ex-patients who would wash everything by hand. 12 ex-patients who had trained with the Hamlins at the Princess Tsehai Hospital worked at the hospital by the river as nursing aides. These women worked in the wards, with outpatients and, occasionally, the operating theatre.

The initial support of these groups ensured the success of the hospital during a period of great uncertainty.

Catherine’s resilience and commitment to her patients has been the hallmark of her 60 years in Ethiopia. Throughout war, famine and upheaval, Catherine’s dedication to eradicating fistula forever has been unwavering. You can support Catherine and the incredible work of Team Hamlin here.

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