real life

Catherine Hamlin has seen firsthand what happens when children give birth.

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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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It was there they saw their first obstetric fistula, an “academic rarity” that had been just about eradicated in most Western countries. Seeing firsthand how high the incidences of obstetric fistula were, the Hamlins decided they needed a hospital specifically dedicated to that procedure.

“We were touched and appalled by the sadness of our first fistula patient: a beautiful young woman in urine-soaked ragged clothes, sitting alone in our outpatients department away from the other waiting patients,” Catherine Hamlin recalls.

“We knew she was more in need than any of the others.”

They did not leave after three years.

In fact, 60 years later, Catherine Hamlin is still there. She stays in a cottage on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, and is involved in the day-to-day workings of the hospital. And her objective is simple: To eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

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Reg Hamlin worked for the hospital right up until his death in 1993.

For women like Aregu, the work of the Hamlins is life saving.

There are women like Zemzem, who tried multiple times to end her own life. After suffering obstetric fistula she remembers the first time she watched urine run down her legs. And it never stopped.

She lived alone in a hut following the death of her husband, with nothing more than cloth to sleep on.

Locals threw her food when they could.

She lived like this for 35 years.

The surgery provided by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, Zemzem says, was like “[being] born new”.

Change, Catherine Hamlin reminds us, doesn’t happen because we wish it to.

There are some people, Hamlin being one of them, who see a job that needs to be done, and won’t leave until it’s complete.

She knew not only that these women were in extreme discomfort, but that they were ostracised. They have been exiled from their communities. They had no future.

So day by day she gave these women the one thing every human being deserves. Dignity.

And perhaps there is no greater gift.

She is the true definition of a changemaker.

To donate, learn more about the work of Catherine Hamlin or read more about living with obstetric fistula, visit www.hamlin.org.au. 

Mamamia is profiling women who are changemakers – those who have changed the world for better. This post has been brought to you in partnership with Belong Broadband, who also believe that together, we can make a difference.

This content was brought to you with thanks by our brand partner, Belong.

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