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Dr. Catherine Hamlin Treated Over 60,000 Women Suffering from a Devastating Childbirth Injury

Over 60 years, over 60,000 women have been treated for free for this devastating childbirth injury at Dr. Hamlin's fistula hospital.

When Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her husband, Reg, first arrived in Ethiopia in 1959, a fellow gynecologist warned them that "the fistula patients will break your hearts." They did — but also they ignited the Hamlins' determination to help. Hamlin and her husband co-founded the non-profit Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, and in the decades since, over 60,000 women have been treated free of charge at their hospitals. Hamlin, died on Wednesday at the age of 96 in Addis Ababa, hoped to inspire people around the world to help eliminate this devastating and entirely preventable childbirth injury which affects more than two million young women worldwide. "This terrible condition has been eradicated in the West," the Nobel Peace Prize nominee said. "In countries like Ethiopia it is a common condition.... [Here] women come into labor and there's nobody to help them."

Born in Sydney, Australia on January 24, 1924, Hamlin graduated from medical school in 1946. She and her husband, a fellow doctor, had never seen a fistula patient before they answered an ad from the Ethiopian government in 1958 looking for doctors to help establish a midwifery school in Addis Ababa. They soon discovered that fistulas were common in Ethiopia and in much of the developing world.

Obstetric fistula occurs when women go through prolonged labor; these labors, which often last 5 days or more, frequently result in a stillbirth and teenage mothers are at particular risk. The pressure from the unborn child prevents blood flow to the vaginal tissue, causing it to die and leaving a hole in the vaginal wall, usually into the rectum or bladder. Women then suffer uncontrollable leakage of urine and/or feces, which often leads to women being ostracized by their families and communities.

Fistula is considered a disease of poverty because it's completely preventable. In developed nations, obstetric fistula has been effectively eradicated for over a century, thanks to medical interventions like C-sections. In countries without widespread access to maternal care, however, an estimated two million women live with the condition and 75,000 more women develop fistulas every year. The condition is treatable with surgery, but few fistula sufferers can afford the price for a surgical repair.

In recent interviews, Hamlin still remembered the first patient she and Reg operated on: "She was just a little girl, 16 or 17," she reflected. "She was expecting to be seen last, because she was smelling.... [Reg] made a great fuss of her, and she was the first patient we cured, and of course that was a wonderful moment, being able to send her home in a new dress with hope in her heart. That was what made me realize we were in Ethiopia for a purpose."

Recognizing the dire need for accessible fistula treatment, the Hamlins founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974, the world's first medical center dedicated exclusively to providing free repair surgery to poor women. Today, the foundation also runs five regional hospitals in Bahir Dar, Mekele, Yirgalem, Harar and Mettu. Now established as the global center of expertise on fistula repair, surgeons come from around the world to be trained by Hamlin and her associates.

In addition to providing surgical treatment, the hospital ensures each patient receives customized counseling, physiotherapy, and access to literacy and numeracy programs. Each woman also leaves with a brand new dress made by the hospital's seamstresses. "We don’t just treat a hole in the bladder," Hamlin said. "We treat the whole patient."

Credit: Kate Geraghty and The Sydney Morning Herald (with permission via the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation)

Even better than treating fistula is preventing it, and in a country like Ethiopia, which has only 325 OB/GYNs for a population of 95 million people, midwives offer the best hope of providing front-line maternal care. In 2006, Dr. Hamlin established the Hamlin College of Midwives to train young rural women to assist in births, and to recognize the warning signs that a laboring mother needs more advanced medical help.

Globally, there are over 300,000 maternal deaths every year, 99 percent of which occur in poor countries, and complications in pregnancy and childbirth remain the leading cause of the death among adolescent girls in many developing countries. "I dream of a midwife in every village," Hamlin says. "We want a safe delivery and a live baby for every mother."

Dr. Hamlin's work put obstetric fistula on the global health agenda, and her efforts has been internationally recognized by governments and professional medical societies around the world, including with two Nobel Peace Prize nominations. At Dr. Hamlin's 90th birthday party, her son, Richard, declared that "Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.” Dr. Hamlin, who lived in a cottage at the hospital and continued to be active in its day-to-day work until her death, trained many others to carry on her important mission. "My dream is to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever," she once said. "I won’t do this in my lifetime, but you can in yours."

To learn more about Hamlin's work or to donate to support the on-going efforts to make pregnancy safe for every woman, visit the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation website.

Children Books About Pioneering Women of Medicine and Making An Impact

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Illustrated by: Marjorie Priceman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t want to be a wife, or a teacher, or a seamstress: she wanted to be a doctor! But in the 1830s, that just wasn't something women did. Elizabeth wasn't swayed, though: when people told her she wasn’t smart enough, or strong enough, she knew better. She fought her way past detractors and skeptics to attend medical school, and not only was she the first woman to graduate from a medical degree in the US, she became the first woman to join the UK Medical Register. Her brilliant career would become an inspiration for generations of women after her. With its colorful art and inspiring tone, this is sure to be a favorite for would-be doctors everywhere.

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Dr. Jo: How Sara Josephine Baker Saved the Lives of America's Children

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Julianna Swaney
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

After Sara Josephine Baker lost her brother and father to typhoid fever, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. But when she graduated in 1898, few people wanted to see a woman doctor, so Dr. Jo took a job in public health working in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's poorest neighborhoods. She realized that, by improving the health of children, she could improve the health of a whole community. Dr. Jo assigned visiting nurses to new mothers, designed safe infant clothing, set up milk stations, and created training and licensing for midwives — and her work saved over 90,000 children. This picture book biography of a groundbreaking woman in medicine highlights how simple innovations can have an enormous impact.

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Patricia Bath was coming of age, the intelligent young woman was determined to become a doctor, but she had many obstacles in her way: sexism, racism, and poverty all seemed to be working against her. Despite it all, she broke new ground for both women and African Americans in her chosen field of ophthalmology. In 1981, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a quick and nearly painless way to treat cataracts — one which has now been used on millions of patients around the world! This inspiring story, which includes a note from Bath herself, highlights the power of fighting for a dream.

Mimi's Village: And How Basic Health Care Transformed It

Mimi's Village: And How Basic Health Care Transformed It

Written by: Katie Smith Milway
Illustrated by: Eugenie Fernandes
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

When Mimi Mahalo's younger sister Nakkissi gets sick after drinking unsterilized water, the family has to walk an hour to a nearby village in order to get help. The friendly Nurse Tela treats Nakkissi and vaccinates all the children, but Mimi can't help but think how much better it would be if they had a clinic of their own. With some determination — and help from both her community and an outside organization — it's not long before Nurse Tela makes her first visit to Mimi's village, providing hope for better health for all. This picture book highlights the importance of basic health care and the power of one person to make a difference.

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Recommended Age: 7 - 11

Activism can sometimes seem overwhelming — but there are problems large and small that kids can tackle every day! In this book, Chelsea Clinton addresses five key concepts — health, hunger, climate change, endangered species, and bullying — and shows kids how to start solving them, either individually, locally, or globally. Each chapter ends with a "Start Now!" bullet list, providing suggestions for young would-be activists to take first steps towards big changes. Kids will particularly love the photographs of real kids, just like them, who have started leading the way for people around them.

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Written by: Susan M. Latta
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 19th century battlefield nurses Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, to modern medical miracle workers like Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Dr. Bonnie Simpson Mason, women have long played a key role in medicine — but their contributions have often been downplayed or forgotten. In this fascinating new title from the Women of Action series, readers get to meet some of the daring and trailblazing women of the past two hundred years of medicine. These women defied prejudices and expectations, created incredible new procedures, and devoted their lives to healing people around the world.

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Written by: Laurie Ann Thompson
Recommended Age: 12 and up

When a teen has an idea for a way to change the world, she may not know what to do to make it a reality. This book will guide her through it, step by step! Individual chapters cover everything from refining your idea to fundraising to creating a business plan, and even discuss what to do when you're ready to move on, whether you're closing down your project or handing it off to another person. Changing the world may not be easy, but with this book, she'll know where to start.

The Hospital By The River: A Story of Hope

The Hospital By The River: A Story of Hope

Recommended Age: Adults

When Dr. Catherine Hamlin moved from Australia to Ethiopia, she never dreamed that she would devote her life to one medical condition. That was before she realized how many women suffered from obstetric fistula, an injury of childbirth that's common in places where there is limited medical care. Not only did these women suffer the physical symptoms of their injuries, but they also found themselves ostracized and shamed. In this recently updated memoir, Dr. Hamlin tells the story of her work opening the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, and its satellite Hamlin Fistula Centers, to provide fistula repairs free of charge — and how, six decades later, it still provides hope to thousands of women. For even more stories of the women Dr. Hamlin has helped, check out Catherine's Gift: Stories of Hope from the Hospital by the River.

100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women

100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women

Written by: Betsy Teutsch
Recommended Age: Adults

Global poverty can seem like an overwhelming problem, a small contribution can do more than we think! In her eye-opening book, Betsy Teutsch looks at various paths out of poverty in eleven different sectors, including public health, finance, law, and technology, each of which can be dramatically affected even by small investments. Along with introductions to non-profits and community groups working on her 100 paths, Teutsch shares pictures and profiles of women who are doing cutting-edge work to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. By sitting down and figuring out how your family can come up with $100 to give, you and your Mighty Girl can then make a big difference in the lives of women around the world.

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