Compassion in Action
17 August 2018
Catherine Hamlin, an Australian gynaecologist who has spent most of her life in Ethiopia, is a 21st-Century Mother Teresa. She has revolutionised care of a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula which occurs when the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and there is no doctor to perform a caesarean section. As many as 2 million women (and often teenage girls) worldwide suffer from fistulas. The babies die, and the woman is left incontinent and embarrassed with malfunctioning bodily waste systems. In many cases, their husbands reject their wives and leave them to fend for themselves.
Hamlin and her late husband, Reg, set up a fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and their work proves that it is possible to repair the injuries cheaply. This hospital trained generations of doctors to repair fistulas and provided a model that has been replicated in other countries.
At a 90th birthday party for Hamlin in January 2014, former patients cheered as she blew out 90 candles on a cake. Her son Richard, referring to the patients she has helped, declared: “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.”
A former fistula patient, Mamitu Gashe, helped doctors during her recovery and was soon recognised as a first-rate talent. Mamitu was illiterate but learned to perform complex fistula repairs and, because the hospital does so many, has become one of the world’s experts in fistula surgery.
When distinguished professors of obstetrics from around the world come to this hospital for training in fistula repair, their teacher has often been Mamitu. In much of the world, the most dangerous thing a woman can do is become pregnant and 800 die daily in childbirth. Many more suffer injuries. Liberals and conservatives joust over abortion policies, but the basic task of making childbirth safer never gets adequate attention or resources.
So for just a moment let’s join in celebrating a doctor who has saved the lives of vast numbers of women - and now counts some of them as colleagues. Ethiopia, in February 2014, nominated Hamlin for the Nobel Peace Prize, and she deserves it. A life that exemplifies compassion in action. How would your life rate?
Dr David McClintock