Making a Difference in Ethiopia
By George Repin
Dr Reg Hamlin, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, who had been the Medical Superintendent of the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, Sydney and his wife Dr Catherine Hamlin, also an obstetrician/gynaecologist, who had married in 1950, arrived in Addis Ababa in 1959 under a contract with the Ethiopian Government. The three year contract was to establish a greatly needed School of Midwifery at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital but, after only ten midwives had been trained the Government withdrew funding and closed the school.
Doctors Reg and Catherine Hamlin in the early days at the Princess Tsehay Hospital
In the meantime the Hamlins had become acutely aware of the high incidence of obstetric fistulae among very young women in the country. Obstetric fistulae are extremely rare in countries with adequate obstetric/midwifery care (with access to episiotomy and Caesarean section). The Hamlins had never seen cases and it had been many years since operations for their repair had been performed in Australia. They set about learning the operative technique and in the first three years carried out about 300 operations.
There is no delicate way to describe an obstetric fistula. The following description is from an article by Nikki Barroclough in the Melbourne Age on December 1, 2008 following her visit to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital:
“….it’s a hole which develops between a woman’s vagina and her bladder, and sometimes between her vagina and her rectum, after days of obstructed labour without medical intervention, when the pressure of the baby’s head against the mother’s pelvis cuts off blood supply to delicate tissues. The mother usually gives birth to a dead baby, and if the resulting intense grief isn’t enough to deal with, she’ll find herself leaking urine, and sometimes faeces as well, through her vagina. The leaking is continuous and uncontrollable.”
The women, because of their constant smell, tend to be abandoned by their husbands and they are often ostracised by their relatives who may build a small hut for them to live in, away from the rest of the family.
The Hamlins dedicated their lives to the repair of obstetric fistulae at first in the Memorial Hospital but ultimately, in 1974, in a purpose built facility – which is now the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. This is the only medical centre in the world dedicated exclusively to fistula repair.
Dr. Catherine Hamlin with a young girl patient.
In a letter from Dr Catherine Hamlin in May 1983 she told me of her work:
“It is exciting and interesting and very worthwhile work – as our patients are all such young attractive women , who without this surgery would be doomed to a lonely life of misery! So our reward is seeing the change from this wretchedness to women once again with assurance and self respect – and able to marry again and have a living child! We get great joy therefore in our work! and also living in this really beautiful country – very like Australia in some of its country scenery – and in its many eucalyptic trees.”
Reg Hamlin died in 2003. Catherine Hamlin stayed in Addis Ababa to continue the work she and her husband started. In an autobiography published in 2005 she wrote about their work and the hospital they established – weaving their story with the history of the hospital and of Ethiopia the country she adopted. The book is called The Hospital By the River.
Catherine Hamlin has received many awards recognising her work, including Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
Copyright George Repin 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Addendum - Reflections: Dr Catherine Hamlin AC - 2018 NSW Senior Australian Of The Year
Previous Reflections by George Repin
The Nineteen Thirties Remembering Rowe Street The Sydney Push Saturday Night at the Movies Shooting Through Like A Bondi Tram A Stop On The Road To Canberra City Department Stores - Gone and Mostly Forgotten An Australian Icon - thanks to Billy Hughes Crossing The Pacific in the 1930s Hill End The Paragon at Katoomba Seafood In Sydney How Far From Sydney? Cockatoo Island Over The Years The Seagull at the Melbourne Festival in 1991 Busby's Bore The Trocadero In Sydney Cahill's restaurants Medical Pioneers in Australian Wine Making Pedal Power and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Pambula and the Charles Darwin Connection Gloucester and the Barrington Tops A Millenium Apart Have You Stopped to Look? Gulgong Il Porcellino Olympia Durham Hall Sargent's Tea Rooms Pie Shops and Street Photographers The Ballet Russes and Their Friends in Australia Hotels at Bondi Alma Ata Conference - 1978 Keukenhof - 1954 The Lands Department Building and Yellowblock Sandstone The Goroka Show - 1958 A Gem On The Quay Staffa The Matson Line and Keepsake Menus Kokeshi Dolls The Coal Mine At Balmain The Hyde Park Barracks The Changing Faces Of Sydney From Pounds and Pence to Dollars and Cents Nell Tritton and Alexander Kerensky Making A Difference In Ethiopia William Balmain J C Bendrodt and Princes Restaurant Azzalin Orlando Romano and Romano's Restaurant Waldheim Alcohol in Restaurants Before 1955 King Island Kelp The Mercury Theatre Around Angkor - 1963 Angkor Wat 1963 Costumes From the Ballets Russe Clifton at Kirribilli Chairman Mao's Personal Physician The Toby Tavern The MoKa at Kings Cross The Oceaographic Museum in Monaco The Island of Elba Russian Fairy Tale Plates Meteora Souda Bay War Cemetery Barrow, Alaska Cloisonné Tripitaka Koreana Minshuku The Third Man Photographs and Memories Not A Chagall! Did You Listen? Did You Ask? Napier (Ahuriri, Maori) New Zealand Borobudur Ggantija Temples Plumes and Pearlshells Murano University of Padua Ancient Puebloe Peoples - The Anasazi Pula The Gondolas of Venice Cinque Terre Visiting the Iban David The Living Desert Bryce Canyon National Park Aphrodisias The Divine Comedy Caodaism Sapa and local Hill People A Few Children Cappadocia Symi Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre Aboriginal Rock Art on Bigge Island ANZAC Cove (Ari Burnu) 25 April, 1997 Hotere Garden Oputae Children of the Trobriand Islands Page Park Market - Rabaul Rabual Kotor, Montenegro Galleries of Photographs I Lascaux Galleries of Photographs II The Cathedral of St. James – Šibenik, Croatia Ivan Meštrović - Sculptor Delphi Gallery of Photographs III The Handicrafts of Chiang Mai Raft Point San Simeon - "Hearst Castle" Floriade - The Netherlands - 1982 Russian New Year Mycenae "Flightseeing" Out Of Anchorage Alaska The White Pass and Yukon Route Totem Poles Tivkin Cemetery Krka National Park - Croatia Tavistock Square and the BMA Orthodox Easter Wieliczka Salt Mine A Walk on Santorini Indonesian Snapshots Ephesus - The Library of Celsus Ephesus - Some Places Of Interest Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Valley United Nations Headquarters 1958 A Miscellany of Flower Images Gardens Bath St. David's In Wales Zion National Park Nicholas Himona - Artist Kraków Lilianfels Collonges-La-Rouge Gingerbread Houses Cape Sounion Delos Wroclaw Colonial Williamsburg Gruyères Strasbourg Coventry Cathedral The Roman Theatre at Aspendos Turkish Carpets The Duomo of Orvieto Rovinj The City Walls of Dubrovnik Monaco - Snapshots Bonifacio, Corsica Autumn in New England USA The Great Ocean Road Pompeii Didyma Lawrence Hargrave 1850-1915 The Corinth Canal Malta Snapshots of Amsterdam Café Central - Vienna