Australian obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Catherine Hamlin has spent much of her life living in Ethiopia where she has revolutionized care for a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula. Dr. Hamlin, who celebrated her 90th birthday this year, was nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her work building the world’s only medical center dedicated to providing free repair surgery to poor women suffering from this devastating condition — one that affects more than two million young women around the world.
When Dr. Hamlin first moved with her husband, Dr. Reginald Hamlin, to Ethiopia in 1959 to establish a midwifery school, they had never encountered an obstetric fistula as the condition is very rare in developed countries due to modern obstetric techniques such as Caesarean section. They soon learned that fistulas were common in Ethiopia and in much of the developing world. An obstetric fistula is a medical condition in which a hole or fistula develops in the birth canal area after a difficult or failed childbirth. Most often, the child dies and the fistula renders the woman incontinent. Due to the leaking which occurs and the resulting odor, women are frequently ostracized from their families and communities.
Recognizing the great need for fistula treatment, the Hamlins founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 to provide free fistula repair surgery to women in need. Since then, they have treated 35,000 women with a success rate of 95 percent. Dr. Hamlin has spent years building up local expertise in the surgical procedure and has since opened additional medical centers in other Ethiopian cities. Now established as the global center of expertise on fistula repair, surgeons come from around the world to be trained by Dr. Hamlin and her associates.
To help prevent more women from developing fistulas in the first place, Dr. Hamlin established the Hamlin College of Midwives in 2006. Globally, there are over 300,000 maternal deaths every year, 99 percent of which occur in poor countries, and for every death, at least 20 women suffer severe complications from childbirth. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth remain the leading cause of the death among adolescent girls in many developing countries. In a country like Ethiopia which has fewer than 200 OB/GYNs for a population of nearly 100 million people, midwives offer the best hope of providing front-line maternal care to women, especially those in rural areas.
Dr. Hamlin’s work put obstetric fistula on the global health agenda, and her work has been internationally recognized by governments and professional medical societies around the world. At Dr. Hamlin’s 90th birthday party earlier this year, her son, Richard, declared that “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.” Dr. Hamlin, who lives in a cottage at the hospital and continues to be active in its day-to-day work, has trained many to carry on her important mission. At her party, Dr. Hamlin told those who had gathered to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman: “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside. I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”
Dr. Hamlin’s life-changing work is possible due to the support of donors from around the world through two non-profit organizations — both wonderful charities to support this holiday season — the Australian-based Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia (http://hamlin.org.au/) or the US-based Hamlin Fistula USA(http://hamlinfistulausa.org/).
To learn more about Dr. Hamlin and her work, we highly recommend her memoir “The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope” at http://amzn.to/1r3Mw6K
There is also a collection of “stories of hope” about the people affected by Dr. Hamlin’s work entitled “Catherine’s Gift: Stories of Hope from the Hospital by the River” at http://amzn.to/Vaf8fW
You can also learn more about Dr. Hamlin’s fistula hospital and its impact on women’s lives in the excellent hour-long PBS documentary “A Walk to Beautiful” at http://to.pbs.org/1pKf7Kt
For Mighty Girl stories to teach your children about the value of giving to others, visit our post on “Making an Impact: Mighty Girl Books About Charity and Community Service” at http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=5863 — or browse our entire “Generosity & Charity” book section.
For stories of girls and women living through poverty and hardship, visit our “Hardship & Poverty” section.
And, for stories for children and teens about the value of compassion, visit our “Kindness & Compassion” book section.