Ticket to Ride: Transporting Patients in the Early Years

One of the most significant barriers to good health for a woman in regional Ethiopia is the inability to access life-saving healthcare. Today, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia operates the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and five regional hospitals, as well as supporting over 50 Hamlin-supported midwifery clinics – making it easier than ever before for Ethiopian women to access the care they need, and avoid fistula injuries.

This was not always the case, as John Little illustrates in his book, Catherine’s Gift. During their time at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in the 1960s, Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin would have to use unconventional means to ensure that patients were able to get to the hospital.

By any means possible 

The inaccessibility of many of the villages and regions where fistula is most prominent means that many women would suffer the indignity of fistula without even hearing of the remarkable work of Catherine and Reg. For those who did hear of the Hamlins’ success, great effort and personal expense would often be placed in trying to reach Addis Ababa. One patient, whom the Hamlins treated, walked over 450 kilometres from northern Ethiopia to reach the hospital in the capital. Another patient had to beg next to a bus stop for seven years in order to raise the money needed to reach Addis Ababa from the south of the country.

The Hamlins would also search for patients in need, as well as wait for patients to come to them. Reg would drive to the bus station every day asking for women smelling of urine. Their Volkswagen Beetle would often be used as an ad hoc ambulance to transport patients to the Princess Tsehai Hospital. The result of this altruism was their car smelling of urine; for the Hamlins, it was worth it if it meant patients were receiving the care they needed.

Growing pains

With so many women visiting the hospital, Catherine and Reg required a proper place where they could await their treatment. A ten-bed hostel was built in 1962 to cater for waiting patients. This facility was not enough to keep up with the growing demand for Catherine and Reg’s care. Sometime later, this area was expanded to accommodate 30 beds. Still, more women came, desperate to be cured of their fistula. Ultimately, Catherine and Reg decided on purchasing a plot of land to house a world-class fistula hospital – the first of its kind in the world. They would open the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974.

A lifelong dedication

Obstetric fistula sufferers are some of the most vulnerable women in Ethiopia. Women who had been shunned by their communities, with some left to suffer for decades on end – these were the women whom Reg and Catherine chose to dedicate themselves to in 1959. 60 years later, the dedication to caring for these women is the cornerstone of the work of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

Patients are not simply treated for their fistula – they are treated with love and care, with emphasis placed on the ensuring the patients are able to rebuild their lives post-surgery. Each woman leaves a Hamlin hospital with a new dress and money for the bus fare back to their hometown.

To this day, transportation remains a considerable barrier for fistula patients to receive life-saving care. Your gift of $30 could cover the cost of ambulance transportation for a woman from a health centre to the nearest hospital. You can donate here today.

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