This article deals with infant loss and depression and won’t be suitable for all readers.
When Aregu looks back at the labour she went through at 17, she doesn’t count it in hours. She counts it in days.
Five full days. More than 100 hours. As she approached the end of the fifth day, Aregu fell unconscious. By the time she awoke, she learned her baby had been delivered stillborn.
Her mother was the only support she had during that week in a small hut in Oromiya, Ethiopia. There were no doctors or nurses. No painkillers or epidurals.
But the worst was not over.
Her labour had been obstructed and Aregu was left with an obstetric fistula – a hole between the vagina and the bladder or rectum.
Aregu was permanently incontinent, and her husband soon left, finding the smell unbearable to live with. The 17-year-old then moved back in with her mother, who cared for her for more than three years. She soon couldn’t recall a life where she didn’t leak urine, housebound and embarrassed by how her body had betrayed her.
Then one day, health professionals working on a malaria campaign came across Aregu, and brought her to a hospital for treatment.
Her condition was so complex that she required hospitalisation for five months and two surgical procedures – the second at a hospital in Addis Ababa.
That hospital was – and still is – run by an Australian woman named Catherine Hamlin.
“(Catherine Hamlin) gave my life back,” Aregu says, “and [made] me a woman again from where I was thrown to the edge. I thank you and love you from the deepest of my heart…”.
Aregu’s story of being incontinent, ostracised and humiliated and having her dignity restored by a (often relatively simple) surgical procedure is not an unusual one.
Hamlin, who is now 95 years old, started the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, which has performed in excess of 60,000 surgeries. That’s the lives of more than 60,000 women changed forever.
It’s no wonder Hamlin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize not once, but twice. She is a Companion of the Order of Australia, Senior Australian of The Year for 2018, and she’s even hosted Oprah at her Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.
Born in the Sydney suburb of Ryde, Hamlin attended the University of Sydney and graduated from Medical School in 1946.
She became a resident of obstetrics at Crown St Women’s Hospital, where she fell in love with a man named Dr Reginald Hamlin, 15 years her senior. They married in 1950.
The pair had a son and worked for most of the 1950s, until they saw an advertisement in a medical journal.
It was calling for an obstetrician and gynaecologist to travel to Ethiopia for a three-year posting and establish a midwifery school in a place called Addis Ababa. Along with their six-year-old son, they arrived in 1959.
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