pregnancy

What is obstetric fistula? The childbirth injury that one Australian woman has spent her life treating.

We have all come into this world because of a woman. When you sit with that fact, you realise how incredible it is. But in the process of childbirth, not all women are able to deliver their baby safely or without harm.

Australian gynaecologist Dr Catherine Hamlin, a pioneer for her medical work in Africa, wants to change that. The 94-year-old, who was named NSW Senior Australian of the Year for 2018, has spent nearly 60 years treating women with obstetric fistula, a horrendous childbirth injury that leaves women permanently incontinent.

Obstetric fistula is caused by obstructed labour during childbirth and leaves a hole between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum. This means it causes survivors to leak urine and/or faeces through their vagina, causing them to feel humiliated and often cut off from their community.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of it is because in Western countries, obstetric fistulas are virtually a thing of the past because we have access to effective maternal healthcare. But in countries like Ethiopia, more than 3000 fistulas occur each year with more than 70 percent of births take place without a doctor or nurse present.

Obstetric fistula is caused by obstructed labour during childbirth and leaves a hole between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum. Image: Supplied.

As though these women aren't dealing with enough, 93 percent of obstetric fistula survivors also give birth to a stillborn baby, often after an agonising obstructed birth lasting days. You can only imagine what it feels like to suffer for days through an excruciating obstructed labour, lose your baby and then face the most horrendous internal injury just because you are a woman without access to effective maternal healthcare.

Yet while this situation might sound hopeless, it actually couldn't be further from it because with the right access to maternal healthcare, obstetric fistula is entirely preventable. Having access to a well-trained midwife and an emergency c-section can stop obstetric fistulas from happening in the first place.

With the right access to maternal healthcare, obstetric fistula is entirely preventable. Image: Supplied.
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Aside from prevention, obstetric fistula can mostly be repaired with a single life-changing surgery that can take no more than an hour. These surgeries take place at one of the six Hamlin hospitals across Ethiopia that Dr Hamlin has opened. Here, patients receive a customised program that includes nutrition, physiotherapy, counselling and rehabilitation.

For Dr Hamlin, it's not just about repairing the injury but restoring dignity for these women. "These women have suffered more than any woman should be called upon to endure. To meet only one is to be profoundly moved and calls forth the utmost compassion that the human heart is capable of feeling," she says.

In addition to the six hospitals opened by Dr Hamlin, she has also opened a college to train midwives and a rehabilitation centre. With a success rate of around 95 percent, Dr Hamlin's not-for-profit organisation Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is now globally renowned for its treatment technique. For this reason, 28 surgeons from around the world have visited and trained at the hospital to learn their acclaimed, world-best treatment.

For Dr Hamlin, it's not just about repairing the injury but restoring dignity for these women. Image: Supplied.
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Since starting her work in Ethiopia, Dr Hamlin, her husband Reg and the team at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia have treated close to 55,000 women, a feat that is nothing short of incredible. And the model of care has been so successful it's now expanding into Uganda.

While Dr Hamlin no longer operates, she still lives on the grounds of the hospital in Addis Ababa, still striving towards the goal she has dedicated almost her whole life to achieving. "My dream is to eradicate obstetric fistula. I won’t do this in my lifetime, but you can in yours," she says.

So, on May 23, International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, you can join the movement to eradicate this awful childbirth injury forever.

It's as simple as purchasing a fair-trade cotton Hamlin tote bag and sharing the awareness of obstetric fistula by posting a photo of the tote bag on your social media with the hashtag #EradicatingFistulaForever. It's only $20, and all proceeds go to the prevention of obstetric fistula.

Tote bag
The tote bag that can make a huge difference. Image: Supplied.

The Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation also raises funds with a collection of jewellery, homewares, food, fashion, baby clothes, and special support packs for women in need.

Together, one day we will be able to say goodbye to obstetric fistula for good. Because every woman deserves to deliver her baby safely and without harm.

This post was created with our Mamamia Cares partner, the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation.

The Catherine Hamlin Foundation exists to raise money and awareness for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, which was founded by pioneering Australian, Dr Catherine Hamlin and late husband Dr Reg Hamlin.  Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia has treated almost 55,000 women who have suffered one of the most horrific childbirth injuries – obstetric fistula. May 23 is International Day to end Obstetric Fistula. Join the movement to eradicate obstetric fistula and reach those women in need of treatment by purchasing a Hamlin tote bag dedicated to this day. You can purchase these here.   We won’t stop until every woman is reached – will you help us?

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