Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012
New York (TADIAS) – Ethiopia’s recent conferring of an honorary citizenship on Dr. Catherine Hamlin, founder of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, is a well-deserved recognition for a remarkable woman who has spent a better part of her life in the service of her adopted home. According to The Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vested the honorary citizenship at a ceremony held at his office in Addis Ababa on Thursday, April 26th. Meles announced: “Dr. Hamlin was awarded the citizenship for serving the fistula patients for more than five decades by establishing a fistula hospital in the country.”
“When we first arrived we were rather taken with the country because we saw our eucalyptus trees,” Dr. Hamlin, had told Tadias Magazine a few years ago in an interview recounting her memories of arriving in Ethiopia in 1959. The Australian native initially traveled there on a three-year government contract to establish a midwifery school at the Princess Tsehay Hospital. “I felt very much at home straight away because the scenery seemed very familiar to us,” she said. “We got a really warm welcome so we didn’t really have culture shock.”
Until her journey to Ethiopia, Dr. Hamlin, a gynecologist, had never met a fistula patient. “We had read in our textbooks about obstetric fistula but had never seen one,” she admitted. After arriving in Ethiopia with her husband Dr. Reginald Hamlin – a New Zealander who was also an obstetrician and gynecologist – she was warned by a colleague “the fistula patients will break your heart.”
Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury that affects one out of every 12 women in Africa and approximately three million women worldwide. In developing nations where access to hospitals in remote areas are difficult to find, young women suffer from obstructive labor which can otherwise be successfully alleviated with adequate medical support. Unassisted labor in such conditions may lead to bladder, vaginal, and rectum injuries that incapacitate and stigmatize these women. Most patients are ousted from their homes and isolated from their communities.
Dr. Hamlin described the professional environment in the country as one where they “worked in a hospital with other physicians who were trained in Beirut and London.” However, as the only two gynecologists on staff they found it difficult to get away even for a weekend. For the first 10 years of their work with the hospital Reginald and Catherine Hamlin took weekend breaks at alternate times so as to have at least one gynecologist on call at all times, barely managing to take a month off each year to travel to the coast in Kenya. It is during their time at Princess Tsehai hospital that they first encountered fistula patients.
Since surgeries to cure fistula were not considered life-saving, few operating tables and beds were available for such patients at Princess Tsehai Hospital. Fistula patients were also not welcome and were despised by other patients and it wasn’t long before Reginald and Catherine decided to build a hospital designed to help these women, some of whom traveled hundreds of miles to seek treatment.
Speaking of her late husband, Hamlin noted, “When he saw the first fistula patient he was really overwhelmed. He devoted his whole life to raising money to help these women. He was a compassionate man and if he took on anything he would take it in with his whole heart and soul. He worked day and night to build the hospital.” The dream was realized in 1974 and soon the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital received 1 to 10 fistula patients at its doorstep on a daily basis. Women who heard about the possibility of being cured traveled to the Capital from distant villages across the country. Today the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital is a state-of-the-art, full-service medical facility entirely dedicated to caring for women with childbirth injuries.
Asked what her greatest satisfaction has been in this endeavor, Dr. Hamlin responded “It is in knowing that I am working somewhere where God has placed me to work. And I think that we gained more by living [here] and working with these women than we lost by leaving our own countries.” She fondly speaks of her late husband and his infinite compassion for his patients and his attachment to the country. “He loved the whole of Ethiopian society and when he was dying in England it was his final wish to return and be buried in Ethiopia,” she stated.
Dr. Hamlin equally enthused about her ‘home away from home’, emphasizing the joy she feels in seeing a happy, cured patient and her continued enjoyment of the landscape of Ethiopia and its people. Amidst her busy life she had found time in the “early hours of dawn” to write down the story of her life in her book The Hospital by the River, which was a bestseller in Australia. Her humble personality is evident as she replies to our inquiries about her past nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by saying she didn’t know about it. Indeed along with being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 she has also been awarded the Haile Selassie Humanitarian Prize in 1971, the Gold Medal of Merit by Pope John Paul in 1987, and an Honorary Gold Medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in England in 1989. In 2003 she was nominated as an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and she was the co-winner of the 2009 Right Livelihood Award.
At the ceremony last week, she said: “Although I was not born in Ethiopia, I love the country very much.”
We welcome Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s induction as a fellow Ethiopian!