Last month my roommate Katy persuaded me to join her on a visit to the most advanced Fistula Hospital in the world. Before meeting Katy, I had never heard of Fistula. Being well informed about maternal health issues, Katy knew this was an important visit, one that we could not pass up.
First I had to understand what Fistula was. With a little googling, I discovered that 5% of childbirths result in obstructed labour around the globe. Obstructed labour occurs when the baby gets stuck, and can eventually cause Obstetric Fistula: a tear in the mother’s birth passage where urine and/or feces flow uncontrollably. The tragic result is a woman debilitated by her condition, emitting a repugnant odor. She eventually becomes ostracized from her husband, family and community and remains in a state of isolation. Some die.
In many developing nations, pregnant women acquire Obstetric Fistula because of impoverished rural environments and the low status of women. Nine thousand women in Ethiopia develop fistula annually. The statistics are distressing but the reality is that the pioneering Hamlin Fistula Hospital offers hope and renewed futures for affected women. My visit, accompanied by the lovely and knowledgeable Sisay, revealed a calm facility in the heart of cacophonous Addis Ababa. The hospital grounds were decorated with flowers. Patients drifted down forested paths, an aura of tranquility surrounding them. During the tour, I observed the post-op ward, maternity room, craft shop, Oprah Centre, physiology unit, and patient classroom.
As we wandered the spacious property, Sisay divulged nuggets of information. I learned how dedicated the hospital was to treating patients holistically. Some examples…
- 95% women return to their previous lives after fistula surgery; however, the remaining 5% are persuaded to undergo a second and much more life-altering surgery. The surgery changes them to excrete externally into a bag that they must carry with them at all times. As women cannot return to their villages, the hospital permanently hires them as nurses. I saw at least seven nurses working industriously, their bags discretely hidden beneath their neat red aprons.
- Surgery and treatment is entirely free for patients. This improves the likelihood of women traveling from extreme rural locations to Addis Ababa
- Occupational therapy and group discussions are used to lift the stigma and shame women are burdened with prior to surgery. At the craft shop, I purchased several hand woven baskets that pay directly to the patient who made the item
- A midwifery education program is in its fourth year. The program trains rural midwives who will live in far-reaching communities to permanently strengthen maternal health
- To symbolize restored dignity, women that have completed recovery are given a new dress and paid transport home
One woman I saw on our walk hobbled past us with an awkward gait, aggressively swinging her left leg forward every second step. Sisay commented that she had been abandoned in a shed for three years before arriving at Hamlin, suffering severe physiological injuries to her legs and feet. She had occupied Hamlin for the past three years and would eventually move on to their long-term rehabilitation centre. Her story is included in the bestseller Half the Sky (Katy highly recommends it!)
I guess one of the strangest and sobering realizations is the knowledge that if Katy or I ever bear a child and have complications, we will never have to suffer from fistula. Fistula can be prevented. Fistula was eradicated from the United States in 1880. It is a condition from history. If I have an obstructed labour, there will be doctors surrounding me and a c-section performed immediately. Fistula is a reality that I will never know. For this reason and the positively radiant tour of Hamlin, I contributed to their deserving hospital.
You can learn more at their website hamlinfistula.org. Photos are courtesy of Hamlin website.