As I step down as CEO of Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation this month, I am reflecting on my time with the foundation and the many life-changing encounters I have had at Hamlin over the past eight years.
When Dr Catherine Hamlin passed away in 2020 it was a news story all over the world. This pioneering, life-changing surgeon who spent her life as a tireless champion for women who were among the most marginalized and shunned in the world - was no longer here to lead the movement she and Reg founded more than 60 years ago.
Catherine’s death invoked in me a mass of conflicting emotions – loss and sadness and yet so much pride in her life well-lived and for the humbling opportunity I’ve had to be part of the extraordinary movement that she started.
It was a seismic moment for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia and the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation. A moment which saw an extraordinary response from everyone within the organization - our staff, boards, clinical teams and other workers in Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s hospitals, midwifery clinics and the Hamlin College of Midwives; Hamlin Partners around the world; our volunteers, and you our wonderful supporters. Everyone responded magnificently as a tribute to the work Catherine and Reg started and everyone renewed their resolve to achieve Catherine’s goal of a world without fistula. In the almost eight years I have had the privilege of leading the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation it was a memorable and life-changing event.
As an organization we are all proud of progress made by Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia toward the health and well-being of Ethiopian women. Some special highlights for me are:
New Obstetric Fistula injuries have declined in Ethiopia
The continued scale up of the Hamlin College of Midwives prevention program and the more than 90 Hamlin supported midwifery clinics in rural Ethiopia is making an impact. In 2016 the Ethiopian Ministry of Health estimated there were around 15,500 new obstetric fistula cases per year (0.42% of all births). By 2020 this was estimated to have reduced to around 1000 new cases each year. Hamlin trained Midwives have contributed to this remarkable progress.
Ethiopian women living with historical fistula are being found and treated
Many women suffering with fistula injuries don’t know there is a treatment and they suffer unnecessarily, sometimes for a lifetime. Hamlin’s new Project Zero which launched this year is finding these women. This ground-breaking program is the culmination of more than 60 years of work in Patient Identification and Prevention. It is Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s road map for eradicating fistula from Ethiopia just as Catherine planned.
Hamlin Patients are thriving
Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia’s updated vocation training program launched in 2021 and is changing lives. This three-month residential course is offered to those former fistula patients who need it most. More than 500 women have completed the program. Having gained the skills and confidence to generate an income, they now live with choices and independence.
But as I reflect on my time as CEO of this wonderful organization - as is often the case - it is the individual people, more than the achievements, that foster the greatest and deepest memories:
On my first trip to Ethiopia I met Mamitu Gashe. Beloved by all, Mamitu is known for her remarkable journey to become one of the world’s great fistula surgeons. A prolific surgeon and trainer, she continues in surgery today at Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and brings joy and healing to every patient she meets. I see Mamitu each time I visit and she continues to thrive.
I also met Asrebeb on that first trip. A sweet girl who had arrived at Hamlin severely injured. She had lived alone for six years, was malnourished and weighed just 49lbs. Asrebeb had multiple surgeries to repair her fistulas and was very frail. Today she is happy and works as a skilled pottery maker. It is hard to over-state the stunning transformation Hamlin surgeons have on the lives of women like Asrebeb.
Dr Zahra Sualih, a highly skilled surgeon at Hamlin's hospital in Metu, has dedicated her life to treating women with obstetric fistula and advanced pelvic organ prolapse and works around the clock to end their suffering. Zahra is also on the front line of Project Zero and Hamlin’s Metu hospital is at full capacity. Her conviction that Ethiopia can be fistula free is contagious.
My deepest respect for the many kind and committed individuals who quietly donate to Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation. They help ensure every woman who arrives at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is treated and more midwives are trained at the Hamlin College of Midwives.
Words can’t express my gratitude and admiration for my colleagues at Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation and Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia who never wavered through COVID and the last few years of conflict in the north of Ethiopia. It’s been a wonderful team effort. Their commitment and dedication is beyond compare.
This cause will remain in my heart for the rest of my life as will the people associated with it. Once you have seen the plight and resilience of our patients, it is impossible to forget them.
So the work to eradicate fistula must continue. Whilst gains have been made, still today, women suffer with an obstetric fistula, often for years. In rural Ethiopia 50% of births are not attended by a medical practitioner or midwife and around 1000 new fistula injuries occur each year.
The last time I spoke with Catherine, her concern continued to be the eradication of fistula in Ethiopia. She was confident eradication would be achieved and that the work she had devoted her life to would continue. One procedure at a time. One life-transforming victory at a time, Catherine created an extraordinary legacy of hope and love. It is a legacy I will continue to support and I will always encourage everyone who can, to join.
Later this year I will start work on some new projects with Hamlin, one of which is to support the making of a film about Healing Lives, the extraordinary story of the friendship between Catherine and Mamitu and their more than 60 years of work to save the lives of Ethiopia’s most vulnerable women.
I am delighted that Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation Chair Julie White will lead the organization moving forward. Julie has a long history with Hamlin, strong knowledge of our programs and warm relationships with the team in Ethiopia and Hamlin’s partners around the world. Her extensive involvement and oversight of critical areas as Chair, along with her strong contribution to governance over the years will ensure a seamless transition. The Foundation and Catherine’s legacy could not be in better hands as we work towards eradication of fistula in Ethiopia.
Take care and thank you for everything you’ve done to support Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia and Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation during my time as CEO of this wonderful organization.
It’s been a rare privilege and a daily joy.
Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation