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From Heartbreak to Hope: Zemzem's journey

An obstetric fistula injury nearly cost Zemzem her life. For over a decade, she felt hopeless, ashamed and alone – until she underwent treatment at Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. 

Rural and remote: Zemzem's life before fistula

Zemzem’s village is nestled in the mountains of the Amhara region in northern Ethiopia. To access basic services – like transport, electricity, and a medical clinic – Zemzem would have to walk across difficult terrain for over two hours. This left the women in her village without a midwife or doctor present when they gave birth. As one of seven children, Zemzem knew of the difficulties posed by childbirth at home.

But Zemzem never could have imagined the devastating turn her labor would take.

The cruelty of fistula

For four excruciating days, Zemzem was in obstructed labor. Unable to have a medical professional by her side, her condition deteriorated. On the fourth day in labor, Zemzem was taken to the closest hospital, where she received the heartbreaking news that her baby was stillborn. 

“After the third day in labor, I was completely unconscious for almost a week and wasn’t aware of what happened in the hospital,” recalls Zemzem.

“When I woke up, I asked my mom about the baby and she told me the sad news that the baby was stillborn.”

Zemzem’s ordeal was not over yet. She discovered she had suffered an obstetric fistula injury which left her incontinent. As Zemzem remembers, “The moment I learned that I couldn’t control my urine and was unable to move my right leg, I felt ashamed of myself and cried, deep in agony.”

Divorced by her husband and made to rely on her loving parents, Zemzem’s life was diminished for years due to her fistula injury. Constantly leaking urine, she felt her life was worthless and her mental health deteriorated. She lost hope and felt like she couldn’t go on.

Sadly, Zemzem’s story isn’t unique. Over 70% of women in Ethiopia give birth at home without medical care. So, when complications arise, many lose their baby and are left with debilitating fistula injuries. It is estimated that 31,000 women are currently living with a fistula injury. Still, there is hope for these women. Their suffering can be treated and prevented, thanks to the dedicated work of medical professionals at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

Fistula left Zemzem hopeless

Complete and compassionate care

After initially going to Hamlin’s Bahir Dar Fistula Hospital, Zemzem was referred to Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for more complex treatment. There, Zemzem successfully underwent diversion surgery, and her treatment was provided completely free of charge, thanks to the kindness of Hamlin donors. 

All treatment at Hamlin’s six fistula hospitals follow the Hamlin Model of Care ethos. Pioneered by Dr Catherine Hamlin, the Hamlin Model of Care is a holistic approach to treating fistula injuries, providing complete and compassionate care to women. As part of her treatment at Hamlin, Zemzem underwent preoperative physiotherapy and a customized counseling program; she took literacy and numeracy classes; and was given nourishing meals, a new dress and money for the bus ride home.

Today, Zemzem is completely dry. She also has a new lease on life, thanks to the kindness and care she received at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

Zemzem patient | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation | Together we can eradicate obstetric fistula in Ethiopia.

Zemzem is healthy and hopeful again

After the successful diversion surgery, Zemzem returned home, overjoyed, to spend some time with family, before returning for holistic care at Desta Mender, Hamlin’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Centre. At Desta Mender, Zemzem took vocational skills classes, received further rehabilitation and counseling. Importantly, she was able to socialize with other women and regain her independence. 

“My mum traveled a long distance to reach this hospital to express her gratitude for every staff member,” beams Zemzem.

“She cried in happiness when she saw me totally cured and with a smiling face. She can’t remember seeing me as happy as I am now.”

Zemzem now looks forward to her future. 

“The only way I could repay you is by becoming a strong, confident and successful woman who is a role model for others – and I promise to realise this in the near future, ” she exclaims.

Thanks to the generosity of Hamlin supporters, Zemzem is now healthy, standing proudly with hope towards her future.

Zemzem hopeful and smiling at Desta Mender

Towards 100,000 surgeries

Over the last 63 years, the dedicated team at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia have restored health, hope and dignity to over 60,000 women. With your help we can reach 100,000 women.

Every woman matters. By helping just one woman, like Zemzem, you are continuing Hamlin’s journey towards helping 100,000 women – and eradicating fistula in Ethiopia once and for all.

Will you help more women like Zemzem receive the compassionate care they need? Click here to donate today.


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All rights reserved 2023 Catherine Hamlin Foundation (R) (ABN58159647499)
Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation is fiscally sponsored by KBFUS (EIN582277856) and KBF Canada (RCO769784893RR0001)

Photography credits to Cameron Bloom, Nigel Brennan, Mary F. Calvert, Kate Geraghty, Amber Hooper, Joni Kabana, Johannes Remling and Martha Tadesse.

Patient names have been changed to protect the identities of those we help.