Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
In March this year as Covid 19 began to grip the world, Dr Catherine Hamlin, famous internationally, died in a hospital in Ethiopia aged 96. All those whose lives were touched by her mourned the loss of this woman who was loved for her contribution to women’s health while possessing most of the finest attributes that make us human. She worked tirelessly for years in dangerous circumstances as civil war and unrest rocked the country. Drought and famine also ravaged the country yet her dedicated team remained, while those who could, escaped.
Sue William’s book Healing Lives is a touching and inspirational tribute to Catherine’s life and the special relationship she fostered with her illiterate protégée, Mamitu Gashe, a former patient.
Like thousands of Ethiopian girls, Mamitu was married young, at the age of 14 in her case. She became pregnant and her subsequent labour was a torturous ordeal, lasting nearly five days. Her stillborn baby was brutally removed resulting in severe fistula damage. Her devoted husband and family carried her over rugged terrain to the hospital in Addis Ababa where Catherine and her surgeon husband, Reg, offered release from the agony of total incontinence and restoration to a normal, happy life.
Mamitu, so badly damaged that it took ten operations to relieve her symptoms, continued with mild urinary incontinence all her life.
She had lived a subsistence existence in her village performing chores such as carrying heavy pots of water from the distant stream. The work the doctors performed in transforming young girls’ lives made a deep impression on Mamitu. She remained at the hospital and began to assist with basic tasks like sweeping, cleaning and interpreting for patients whose language she shared.
As the years went by, she attended the operating theatre and her first significant step was to stitch a wound.
Her work was gentle, careful and dexterous. Under Catherine’s guidance, this evolved into her performing fistula operations herself.
Fistulas are suffered by countless women in poorer countries. Holes are torn in the bladder and the rectum so the afflicted patient has continued incontinence and the accompanying stench. Invariably they are abandoned and condemned to living alone in terrible conditions.
Mamitu’s story is one that brings overwhelming admiration and plaudits from eminent surgeons around the world. They are deeply moved in learning that Mamitu has never been to school or earned formal qualifications. Under the Hamlin’s encouragement and teaching, she had performed thousands of fistula operations, improving lives of her fellow countrywomen.
So desperate and determined were these patients that they, like Mamitu have endured long painful journeys. One woman arrived for treatment seven years after her traumatic birth experience. She had begged all that time to earn the bus fare to the life-saving fistula hospital.
Sue Williams has written a very detailed, awe-inspiring account of the achievements of the Hamlins and their ‘daughter’ Mamitu. Their lives are depicted as a selfless dedication to helping others and reducing the scourge of this condition.
It is clear that generous support from governments, altruistic organisations and celebrities like Oprah make their work possible. The patients are destitute so their treatment is completely free whenever the need. The girls benefit from their ‘miraculous’ operations then rest and recover in an atmosphere of encouragement, friendship and pleasant gardens. Food and clothing are cheerfully bestowed too.
Healing Lives is a chronicle of the respect and awe they won from the world’s top surgeons. They consider it ‘a privilege to work with her’, in reference to Mamitu. They fervently wish that developing countries would realise what can be done by talented people.
The list of awards from Catherine’s home country, Australia, as well as from other countries, is stunning. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Because the small team in that hospital in Addis Ababa constantly strove to improve women’s lives, it is no surprise that Catherine, in the closing years of her life, was thrilled to witness an initiative to educate Ethiopian women to become midwives and maternity nurses in order to bring better health outcomes to remote areas of the country.
Unsurprisingly, her funeral procession this year was over five kilometres long. She was revered and loved, not just by the people in Africa, but around the world.
Friends and family have contributed to Sue William’s book, but so rich and important is Catherine, Reg, and Mamitu’s work in making this a better world for many less fortunate women, that it would take a much larger volume to report it all.
Nevertheless, this is an impressive portrait of lives well lived and an example of what unforeseen effects selfless giving of expertise and exceptional kindness may bring.
by Sue Williams