When Dr. Catherine Hamlin arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with her husband Reg in 1959, neither had ever seen a case of the medical condition called ‘obstetric fistula’ which would soon become their life’s work.
Born in Sydney, Australia in 1924, Catherine was the second eldest of six children. Her father was a successful businessman and Catherine received a good education. Though Catherine was raised in a Christian home it wasn’t until she was 16 or 17 that she committed her life to Jesus Christ. In 1946, aged 22, she graduated from the University of NSW with a medical degree and soon after successfully applied for a resident’s position at the large Crown Street Women’s Hospital, where obstetrician Reg Hamlin was the Medical Superintendent. The two fell in love and were married when Catherine was 26.
As practicing Christians both Reg and Catherine were keen to use their medical skills where they would be most needed, so in 1959 they accepted a three year contract from the Ethiopian Government to serve as obstetricians/gynaecologists at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa. Nothing, however, had prepared them for the sight of the sad and desperate women suffering from obstetric fistula they encountered in Ethiopia.
Obstetric fistula is a condition arising from prolonged obstructed labor in childbirth. It occurs mostly in sub Saharan Africa and in South Asia due to the lack of safe obstetric medical facilities that have long been available in Western countries. Fistula is a hole that is left between the vagina and bladder, or sometimes between the vagina and rectum, caused by long labors without medical intervention. Usually the baby is stillborn and the mother is left incontinent with many also additionally suffering bowel incontinence.
The Hamlins knew nothing at that time about fistulas and were horrified to discover Ethiopian women living as social outcasts, often abandoned by husbands and families and condemned to lives of loneliness and despair on the outskirts of villages.
When Reg and Catherine encountered their first fistula patient, a 17 year old girl leaking urine, they began to realize the magnitude of the fistula problem in Ethiopia and immediately began researching all available information on the condition. They found there was very little knowledge of obstetric fistula anywhere in the Western world as the condition had been all but eradicated through modern medicine in wealthier nations. They then set to work developing a surgical technique to treat the problem and a year after arriving in Addis Ababa operated on their first fistula patient.
Catherine later said: “She was just a little girl, 16 or 17. My husband said, “Come into my office and I’ll take you as my first patient.” She was expecting to be seen last, because she was smelling. He made a great fuss of her, and she was the first patient we cured, and of course that was a wonderful moment, being able to send her home in a new dress with hope in her heart. That was what made me realize we were in Ethiopia for a purpose.”
Since those early days over five decades ago Catherine has devoted her life to the women of Ethiopia. Along with Reg she pioneered the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital which opened in 1974, now recognized as the world’s foremost center of expertise on treating obstetric fistula. Since then the hospital has also become a training centre for surgeons and has developed several branches in rural areas of Ethiopia. The Village of Joy, a rehabilitation center for long term patients has also been built, along with a midwifery college.
Funds come from donors worldwide, some from partner organizations, and the Australian Government has also been a supporter. Thousands of women a year are treated with a success rate of over 90% and all treatment is free of charge. No woman is ever turned away and each is presented with new clothing to take back to their rural villages on departure.
Since Reg Hamlin died in 1993 Catherine has continued the work they started together in 1959.
Catherine Hamlin, now ninety, has carried on her work through drought, famine, a violent military coup and civil war. What began as a tentative three year contract became her life calling. She has received numerous international humanitarian awards and in 1995 was awarded Australia’s highest honor when she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. She is an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
At the time of this article Dr. Hamlin continues her work among the fistula sufferers of Ethiopia, making the daily rounds to check on her patients and assisting in the delicate surgery she helped Reg pioneer more than forty years ago. She dreams of a day when obstetric fistula is eradicated in Ethiopia and across Africa.
If you’d like to know more about the value of Dr. Hamlin’s legacy to the women of Ethiopia I highly recommend the 2007 documentary “ A Walk to Beautiful” available on You Tube. You may also want to read her autiobiography “The Hospital By the River”.
Internet Sources used in this article:
Other Relevant Websites:
Hamlin Organisation Australia : http://hamlin.org.au/
Hamlin Organisation USA: http://hamlinfistulausa.org/