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From Heartbreak to Hope: Zemzem’s journey

Zemzem thinks she’s 28, but she doesn’t know for sure. She does know that years of her life were stolen by a devastating obstetric fistula injury suffered while in childbirth.

Rural and remote: Zemzem’s life before fistula

Zemzem’s village is nestled in the mountains of the Amhara region in northern Ethiopian. Growing up, she was the fifth of seven siblings and was fortunate to attend the local school. To access basic services – like transport, electricity, and a medical clinic – Zemzem would have to walk across difficult terrain for over two hours. This inaccessibility would have catastrophic consequences when Zemzem became pregnant.

Zemzem patient Desta3 | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (USA) | Working to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

The agony of fistula

Just like the other women in her village, Zemzem planned to give birth at home without a trained midwife. For four excruciating days, Zemzem was in obstructed labor. Without a medical professional by her side, her condition deteriorated. On the fourth day in labor, she was taken to the closest hospital, where her baby was heartbreakingly 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. When I woke up, I asked my mom about the baby and she told me the sad news that the baby was stillborn,” recalls Zemzem.

Zemzem patient Desta2 | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (USA) | Working to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

Zemzem’s ordeal was not over yet. She had suffered an obstetric fistula injury and was 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, she felt her life was worthless. Because of her fistula injury, Zemzem’s mental health also suffered. “All the suffering in my life made me think that I shouldn’t be alive. I drunk a bottle of toxic medicine and tried to commit suicide. Amazingly, I survived after two weeks of intensive treatment. Today, after being cured, I consider that day as the biggest mistake I made in my life,” she reflects.

Zemzem patient Desta | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (USA) | Working to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

Zemzem is dry and hopeful again

After initially going to Hamlin’s Bahir Dar Fistula Hospital, Zemzem was referred to Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for more complex treatment. Here, she successfully underwent diversion surgery. Her treatment was provided completely free of charge, thanks to Hamlin donors. As part of her treatment, Zemzem underwent preoperative physiotherapy and a customized counseling program, 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.

Zemzem patient Desta5 | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (USA) | Working to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

After surgery, Zemzem returned home, overjoyed, to spend some time with family before returning for holistic care at Desta Mender, Hamlin’s Rehabilitation and Reintegration Center. Zemzem took vocational skills classes and received further rehabilitation and counseling. Importantly, she was able to socialize with other women and regain her independence. “My mom traveled a long distance to reach this hospital to express her gratitude for every staff member. 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,” she beams.

Zemzem patient Desta6 | Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation (USA) | Working to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever.

Zemzem now looks forward to her future. The treatment she received and the skills she gained at Hamlin have given her a new lease on life. “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 realize this in the near future!” she exclaims.

Zemzem beaming

A fistula injury nearly cost Zemzem her life. Today, thanks to the generosity of Hamlin supporters, she is dry, standing proudly and hopeful for her future.

This Giving Tuesday, you can give more women like Zemzem a new lease on life. Click here to give.


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All rights reserved 2020 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 and images have been changed to protect the identities of those we help.