Dr. Catherine Hamlin, 79, is an Australian gynecologist who has spent the last 44 years in Addis Ababa, quietly toiling in impossible conditions to achieve the unimaginable. She has helped 24,000 women overcome obstetric fistulas, a condition almost unknown in the West but indescribably hideous for millions of sufferers in the poorest countries in the world.
It typically occurs when a teenage girl cannot deliver a baby because it is too big for her pelvis. After several days of labor without access to a doctor, the baby dies and the girl is left with a hole between her bladder, vagina and sometimes rectum. The result is that urine and sometimes feces drip constantly down her legs. In some cases, she is also left lame from nerve damage.
Women with fistulas stink and leave a trail of urine behind them. They are often abandoned by their husbands and driven out by other villagers....
Dr. Hamlin's hospital treats 2,500 women annually in Ethiopia, but each year 8,500 Ethiopian women develop new fistulas. In Nigeria, the Ministry of Women's Affairs estimates that some 800,000 women have unrepaired fistulas. In most countries, no one bothers to estimate the number of sufferers.
"These are the women most to be pitied in the world," said Dr. Hamlin. "They're alone in the world, ashamed of their injuries. For lepers, or AIDS victims, there are organizations that help. But nobody knows about these women or helps them."
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