School was never an option for Semenesh. The small, rural village in Southern Ethiopia where she grew up was so isolated that it would take seven hours to walk to the nearest school or bus stop.
The employment opportunities in her village were limited; Semenesh and most of her family members would spend their days searching for work in surrounding farms. The youngest of three, Semenesh spent her childhood doing odd jobs to help contribute to her family’s income. Her childhood, however, was cut too short when she was married to a man in a nearby village and soon became pregnant.
With the closest government clinic more than seven hours walk away, Semenesh did not have health checks during her pregnancy.
Like most mothers in her village, Semenesh delivered her child at home without the assistance of a trained midwife. Her mother and a group of female elders assisted with the delivery at home.
After three agonizing days in labor with no medical assistance, Semenesh was finally transported to a government hospital where she delivered a stillborn baby while unconscious. She was left with a double fistula and severe injuries to her legs that left her immobile.
“I had never seen or heard of such a shameful health problem in my life. We all believed it was incurable and went back home to await my fate. One year later, my husband left me. I was alone in my house with no one around to help me move or manage myself. There were times where I wished death over living in such agony, but I never gave up hope in God; I prayed day and night,” Semenesh recalls.
For three years, Semenesh remained isolated and uncared for, crumpled on a goat skin rug, leaking urine and feces. A few villagers would bring her food, but no one was there to care for her.
“One day I woke up and I started a desperate journey seeking for help from someone, somewhere. I preferred death to staying home in such a shameful way, so I walked for a full day to reach the closest government clinic,” says Semenesh.
From the government hospital, Semenesh was transferred to Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s Yirgalem Fistula Hospital. Though she underwent two consecutive surgeries to repair her fistula, she could not be fully cured of her extensive injuries.
So, after completing physiotherapy at Yirgalem, Semenesh was transferred to Hamlin’s center of excellence in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Once she reached the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, Semenesh was able to receive the further life-changing treatment which she so desperately needed. The final diversion surgery that cured her of the double fistula she had suffered with for so long was performed.
In addition to the surgery, Hamlin’s social worker identified Semenesh for rehabilitative training. Semenesh stayed at Desta Mender, Hamlin’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Center, for three months, where she learnt life and business skills while in rehabilitation. She has since graduated from the program and returned home with her health, newfound confidence and hope for her future.
Dr Catherine Hamlin, or ‘Emaye’ as the patients called her, and her team made Semenesh’s full recovery possible. “For me, this is like being born again. If I had not arrived here, I could have been dead by now. I would see Emaye while walking around the hospital and I stare at her just to make sure she is human because I believe her life’s work, looking after poor women like me, was the deed of angels. I have so much respect and gratitude for her and for all of the staff,” rejoices Semenesh.
Over the past 61 years, the Hamlin team have restored the health and dignity of more than 60,000 women. But Catherine's vision was to eradicate fistula in Ethiopia forever. With the help of our new Patient Identification Program we want to turn Catherine’s vision into reality by 2030.
We are educating and mobilizing local health officers, who will search for over 31,000 women still suffering in silence in the most remote regions of the country. Most of these women don’t know that help is out there. This program will search Ethiopia’s vast landscape to bring them hope, and offer life-changing treatment and care. It will help women restore their dignity and their place in the community.