The joy expressed by our four young girls, new to Y’tesfa Birhan this year, is palpable. They ooze excitement and anticipation as soon as the school gate is opened, and they have a seemingly unending capacity for spending time on our Grade Two playground. The dynamic of the whole group of 25 girls has evolved as older girls have left and five and six-year olds have joined. This week their eyes widened as they were invited to choose a pair of donated shoes and a water bottle and they were soon involved in a careful selection process.
This feeling of amazement must be felt by girls as young as fourteen that enter the gates of the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, which is somewhere I visited for the first time recently. The compound appears to be a haven of serenity at first glance, packed with wonderful flowers, well-kept lawns and white buildings set on a hillside that leads down to a river.
Many girls that arrive for treatment have travelled from their countryside villages by bus. Often, they have been ostracized by their family and kept in isolation due to a fistula1 that has occurred as they have attempted to deliver their first baby with no medical assistance. It is a condition that is treatable with an 80% success rate and the Fistula Hospital provides these operations at no cost to the patients. I saw a group of nurses’ aides attending a patient on the post-op ward. These ladies had suffered from a fistula themselves but for some reason, even after successful surgery, have been unable to be reintegrated into their communities. Instead they stay at the hospital to encourage the patients and keep the wards clean.
Every new patient is given a colourful blanket which is theirs to keep. They are made from knitted squares sewn together. As a small child I clearly remember both my mum and grandmother industriously knitting squares ‘for Africa’ during long winter evenings by the fire. I took a moment to consider how gratified the creators of the pile of knitted blankets before me on a chair would be, to meet the patients at this hospital. As they lay in bed or were sitting in groups outside, each patient I greeted was identifiable by the blanket they were proudly wearing despite the warm weather and hot sunshine.
Dr Catherine Hamlin, the Australian gynaecologist who first began this endeavour, still lives on the hospital site. At 93 she still climbs the slope to the wards each morning with the help of a stick to speak to nurses and encourage patients. The project has developed from modest beginnings to include five satellite hospitals, a rehabilitation centre and a midwifery college.
After a successful operation, a fistula patient may return to her village. She may remarry and have up to four children, but they are encouraged to return to the hospital to ensure safe deliveries and many do. Once more the operation will be provided free of charge.
As I turned out of the exit onto the dry, dusty, unfinished streets outside the hospital compound, I marvelled at the small oasis I had left behind – a thought provoking afternoon. What an impact a single highly motivated Christian, seeing things through God’s eyes, can have on such a needy and neglected group of young women.
It is worth reading the book ‘The Hospital by the River’ by Dr Hamlin or look at the hospital website to find stories about patients. There is an Emmy award-winning documentary about the work of the hospital available on YouTube called “A Walk to Beautiful”. It is extremely moving.
1 Fistula – an abnormal connection between two internal organs or an internal organ and the skin. The Fistula Hospital deals particularly with “vesicovaginal fistulae” – an abnormal connection between the bladder and the vagina resulting in a continuous leak of urine from the vagina. (Added by Phil.)