Catherine Hamlin just turned ninety. She’s just been nominated for a Nobel prize. And she performed surgery yesterday.

Her faith has kept her going in a foreign land for many years, caring for what most people would consider “the least of these”: women suffering from obstetric fistula.

Fistula once affected women all over the world, but vanished with the advent of modern obstetrics. It occurs when a labor is obstructed — when the baby gets stuck in the vagina — and, without intervention, the prolonged constriction and pressure causes vaginal tissue to decay. Sometimes nerve damage occurs as well.

Women with fistula constantly leak urine or feces, and sometimes both. If they’ve suffered nerve damage, they may have trouble walking. In places where people barely have enough water for basic use, this means that they’re unable to keep clean. Often their husbands and families shun them. They often become depressed — and even suicidal.

Fistula still affects up to 100,000 women worldwide, according to the WHO.

Dr. Hamlin came to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1959. She and her late husband, Dr. Reginald Hamlin, both obstetrician-gynecologists, answered an advertisement in the medical journal Lancet for a three-year contract to train midwifery students.

But they didn’t pack their bags when the three years was up. They couldn’t bear to leave the women — particularly those suffering from obstetric fistula.

Three years turned into fifty-five, and Dr. Catherine Hamlin, who celebrated her 90th birthday last month, is still performing surgery every week. And she’s just been nominated (again) for the Nobel Peace Prize.

All she wants for her birthday? She’d like to keep steady hands so she can keep operating. At the moment, she doesn’t even need eyeglasses in the OR.

Catherine Hamlin with young doctors at Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, 2006. Photo courtesy Samuel Gebru via Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine Hamlin with young doctors at Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, 2006. Photo courtesy Samuel Gebru via Wikimedia Commons.

In her book, The Hospital by the River, Catherine Hamlin tells the sad yet tender story of fistula-affected women shamefacedly cowering at the end of the queue on clinic days, the lonely recipients of sneers from other waiting patients.

Reg and Catherine Hamlin — in no small part motivated by their strong Christian faith — were drawn to these despised and rejected women. Together, they researched techniques for fistula repair — fistula was something they’d encountered only in medical histories, not in their medical training — and in 1974, they founded a dedicated fistula hospital. Later, they started a college to train Ethiopian midwives that is still running.

“I’ve got a good staff that are committed to help and they’re inspired to go on with this work and they will keep the hospital going until we’re free of fistulas in the countryside,” Catherine told a reporter from World News Australia.

And indeed, though Reg Hamlin died in 1993, Catherine has continued the work faithfully. Though most of us would consider it an enormous sacrifice to leave home, family, and a comfortable career in her home country, Catherine doesn’t see it that way.

Her sister, Ailsa Pottie, told reporters,

“…people say ‘oh you know you’re wonderful to give up a good career in Australia,’ as though it’s some sort of terrible hardship for her. But she just loves the people and she loves the work, and she’s just committed.”

Christians might say she has given up home and family for Jesus’s sake, and been richly repaid by finding a new home and family among the women with whom she lives and works in Addis Ababa.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin at the hospital she founded in Addis Ababa, 2009. Photo courtesy Lucy Horodny, AusAID via Flickr Creative Commons.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin at the hospital she founded in Addis Ababa, 2009. Photo courtesy Lucy Horodny, AusAID via Flickr Creative Commons.

Psalm 90, which contrasts the eternal vastness of God with the brevity of human life, seems a particularly appropriate one for Dr. Hamlin’s 90th birthday, and not merely because of the number. Psalm 90 asks God to

“teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart,”

also asking,

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!”

Ninety years may be but a breath in geological time — in the light of eternity, if you’re so inclined — but the wise-hearted Catherine Hamlin has certainly done more in her ninety years than most. She has fought the battle for women’s health on more than one front. She is an eshet chayil.

Here’s hoping you get your birthday wish, Dr. Hamlin: may the work of your hands — quite literally — continue to prosper.

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