Vicki Nunn

by Vicki Nunn

Healers and Hope-Bringers

It’s difficult to put yourself in this situation, but try and imagine that you’re a heavily pregnant woman and you’ve spent hours or even days in labour in agony. Your child is eventually born dead. You have survived this difficult birth although there are many other women in your country who die in these same circumstances.

As a consequence of the problem birth, you’ve developed a condition known as obstetric fistula which has dire consequences that may include an inability to have children and so much more. You have no idea that you have this condition nor of its serious long-term consequences.
Obstetric fistula results in an open, unhealed hole directly from the bladder and/or bowels into the vagina which means that they now leak directly into the vagina.

Not only do you have to come to terms with the loss of a child, your grief and depression as well as the terrible physical pain you endured, but as a result of the condition:

  • You have a foul smelling leakage from your vagina;

  • Even if you can get pregnant again, the child is likely to die without a clean, safe caesarean and you may develop further complications including another fistula;

  • You are ostracised;

  • You’re husband leaves you;

  • You lose your family and friends;

  • You can’t find work and as a consequence, don’t have money for medical assistance;

  • Your condition worsens and you develop ulcers from the waste that weeps from your vagina;

  • You suffer enormous pain;

  • You lose the ability to walk;

  • You develop kidney damage as a result of infection;

  • You suffer terrible incapacity;

  • In an attempt to stop the flow of waste, you may stop eating or drinking;

  • After much agony, you eventually die from infections and long-term poor health, or lack of water or food as a consequence of the condition.

It’s impossible to imagine isn’t it? Instead, try to imagine that by pure chance you are born in a wealthy country with access to good medical facilities. This condition is quite rare in developed countries and medical interventions are put into place to stop it from even developing.

It hardly seems fair does it, that the circumstances of our birth can mean the difference between suffering so terribly or living a healthier and happier life? It’s so difficult for us to really know the suffering of another person because it’s not happening to us, or to someone we know, but we are talking about another human being here – someone who could even be our sister in Christ.

Click to link to larger diagram

Unnecessary Suffering

Obstetric fistulas are uncommon in developed countries but can occur after failed or severe childbirth, especially when there is no proper medical help available. It is estimated that around two million women in various poorer countries are presently living with this condition, and these numbers are increasing.

It seems incredible that so many women are suffering this terrible condition right at this very moment. With good medical care, obstetric fistulas are easily preventable. It is just one of several medication conditions that can result from pregnancy and childbirth.

Ethiopian woman

A New Hope

In the 1950s, Christian doctors Catherine Hamlin (an Australian obstetrician/gynaecologist) and her New Zealand-born husband Reginald Hamlin, saw an advertisement by the Ethiopian Government asking for a gynaecologist and an obstetrician to set up a midwifery school. Both doctors moved to Ethiopa with their six year old son in 1959.

They’d never encountered obstetric fistula before and were shocked to find out how common it was in that country and in other poorer nations. By 1974 they’d founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital to provide free surgery to women to repair the condition. It is the only medical centre in the world which is exclusively focused on providing help for this particular condition.

With a success rate of 95%, the facility has now treated 45,000 women. It has become a global expertise centre on repair for obstetric fistula and surgeons from across the world travel to the Ethiopian facility to be trained.

The Work Continues

After her husband’s death in 1993, Dr Catherine Hamlin continued her work, including training many local medical professionals in the surgical procedures and this has resulted in further centres opening in other Ethiopian cities. The Hamlin College of Midwives was set up in 2006 to help prevent obstetric fistula from developing in the first place.
Although she is now over ninety years of age, Dr Hamlin still lives in a cottage at the original hospital and continues to be very active there, though she no longer under-takes surgery.


Dr Hamlin has received numerous awards including the Companion of the Order of Australia, and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She wrote the best-selling book “The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope.”

In response to the acclaim she has received, Dr Hamlin said, “I’m doing what I love doing and it’s not a hardship for me to be working in Ethiopia with these women.” She also said, “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside.”

At one of her earlier birthday celebrations, Dr Hamlin’s son Richard said, “Catherine has only one son and she has 35,000 daughters.“
Across the world, there are more than 300,000 maternal deaths every year and for every death, there are at least twenty women who experience major complications as a result of childbirth. Ninety-nine percent of the maternal deaths occur in poor countries, and it is pregnancy and childbirth which is the major cause of death in adolescent girls in these same countries. Consider that in Africa, the risk of a women dying from pregnancy or childbirth is one in sixteen.


More information

For more information, go to the Hamlin Fistula webpage at: or view the Youtube one hour documentary “A Walk to Beautiful”
You might also like to support this worthwhile organisation by raising funds and going as a team member on the next Hamlin Ethiopian Adventure. More information is available on this webpage:

No name, undated, Wikipedia: Obstetric Fistula, available:, accessed January 2016.
No name, undated, Wikipedia: Catherine Hamlin, available:, accessed January 2016
No name, undated, Hamlin Fistula USA: World Class Treatment and Prevention of Childbirth Injuries, available:, accessed January 2016
Presenter Monica Attard, ABC: Dr Catherine Hamlin, Founder of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, no date available, available:, accessed January 2016
No name, 28 October 2015, A Mighty Girl Facebook page, available:, accessed January 2016
NB: any internet addresses, books or other written materials referenced in SPAG Magazine are provided as a resource only. Use of these in no way suggests that SPAG Magazine endorses these sites or their products, or other written materials connected with them, nor does SPAG Magazine vouch for the content on these sites.