Shine: Dr. Hamlin’s Labor of Love

Dr. Catherine Hamlin has been called the next Mother Teresa, a miracle worker and a living treasure. But she simply considers the work she is doing in Ethiopia a labor of love. For more than 50 years she has been treating a condition that affects 2-3 million women worldwide; a condition I’d never even heard of. Without her pioneering work, these women would have nowhere to go and no one who could help them. It is no exaggeration to say that she has given 25,000 women their lives back. You can’t get much more Shine-worthy than that.


In the developing world, there is a condition so pervasive, so devastating that 2 to 3 million women are afflicted with it. And it is 100 percent preventable. If you guessed malaria or HIV you would be wrong. It’s fistulas. If you’ve never heard of fistulas, you’re not alone. It is a problem that has been eradicated in industrialized nations.

“This is what I want to do before I die—to let the world know that there are thousands of these women suffering, not only in Ethiopia, but in all developing countries of the world,” says Dr. Catherine Hamlin.

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Born in Australia, Dr. Hamlin has spent the better part of five decades in Ethiopia surgically repairing fistulas in more than 25,000 women and restoring their dignity and lives in the process. (Digest that number for a moment. That is a woman in every seat of Madison Square Garden and then some.) Dr. Hamlin runs four hospitals dedicated exclusively to providing fistula surgery. She was a Nobel Prize nominee, labeled a “miracle worker” by the Sydney Morning Herald, and Nicholas Kristoff, co-author of Half the Sky called her the next “Mother Teresa.” Dr. Hamlin humbly shrugs off these accolades because she really wants to focus your attention on this terrible condition.

Known as “the backyard disease,” a fistula is an opening between an internal organ and the outside of the body. These women have a specific kind of fistula known as an obstetric fistula in which there develops a hole to the bladder or the rectum during obstructed labor and delivery causing incontinence.

It’s a complex problem, or at least more complex that it may seem on the surface. So let me relate the story of Ayehu, a 25-year-old woman who lives in an Ethiopian village located a six-hour walk from the main road. It almost goes without saying that they are poor. The homes in Ayehu’s village are thatched roof huts with dirt floors. Shoes are a luxury. Water is transported from a nearby river in large clay jugs hoisted on the women’s backs.

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Ayehu went into labor with her second child, but couldn’t push the baby out. She was in labor for one week. (That was not a typo, I’m sad to say.) Finally she was brought to a doctor who was able to remove the stillborn. Almost immediately she felt urine leaking onto her legs. The doctor couldn’t correct the problem, so he sent her back to her village. Repairing a fistula requires special surgical training.

Ayehu’s husband couldn’t stand her urine-soaked dresses and the constant stench, not to mention that she really couldn’t have sex. He told her to leave and he married someone else. Ayehu returned to her mother, who wished things were different, but her own home is just one room and the smell was too overpowering. Ayehu was tired of her neighbors staring and whispering behind her back so she built a small lean-to for herself and her daughter adjacent to her mother’s house. That was six years ago. “Death would be better than this,” Ayehu says.

Her friend Fikre had the same problem. She had surgery to fix the fistula and suggested Ayehu do the same, but Ayehu was afraid. It took a lot of convincing but she finally worked up the courage to go. Alone she walked to the main road to get a bus which took her the 23-hour journey to Addis Ababa to see Dr. Hamlin. The other passengers shunned her because of the stench, the urine that constantly runs down her legs.

Everything changed once she arrived at the hospital. It was a haven. The doctors and nurses warmly welcomed her and there were other women just like her.  She didn’t realize that. “I thought it was only me,” she said.

Image from hamlinfistula,

Ayehu represents one of thousands. Dr. Hamlin and her team operate on about 30 women a week, some as young as 13. They will perform about 1,500 operations this year, but she estimates that there are 100,000 women in the countryside of Ethiopia alone who need the surgery. You can do the math on that one. They are able to repair about 93 percent of the women who come to them (some require two or three surgeries), but they have to find a way to get to the hospital.

Dr. Hamlin and her late husband arrived in Ethiopia in 1959 to start a midwifery school. “The previous gynecologist told me and my husband, ‘The fistula patients will break your heart.’ And that’s really what they did. We didn’t plan to stay. But as we began to cure them more and more came.” Fifteen years later they opened their first hospital.

The surgery costs only about US $450, but that is more than four times the annual salary of most rural Ethiopians. Dr. Hamlin’s clinic and others like hers offer the surgery free of charge. They also offer comprehensive rehabilitation because the trauma is not only physical, but psychological and social as well. “This is where the healing process of the mind starts—to make a new life for a young woman who has suffered more than any woman should be called on to endure,” Dr. Hamlin says.

Ayehu was cured. As she left the hospital she, like all of the other women, was given a new dress to start her new life. Once she returned to her village she tore down her hut because she didn’t need to live there anymore.

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Now well into her 80s, Dr. Hamlin’s passion hasn’t diminished. She’s opening a new midwifery clinic that will employ many of her former patients as aides and nurses. “My work is a labor of love. I love being here. I love the people, and I feel that I’ve got a job to try to set up something that will carry on to the future and will prevent this terrible, devastating catastrophe.”



To learn more about Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s work, visit The Fistula Foundation and The Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund.

Coming up next on SHINE: Patience Delgado practices “guerilla goodness” taking people by surprise with small acts of kindness in her community. 

If you or anyone you know should be featured in SHINE, please let me know: contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.



    1. Her passion for what she does is so inspiring. She is the “poster child” for doing what you love to do and good things will follow.


    1. His book, Half the Sky, was amazing, wasn’t it? So many of the stories featured were eye-opening, not the least of which was the work of Dr. Hamlin. I’d recommend that book to everyone.


  1. Wow. I am speechless. I had never heard of this. I need to send this to a nurse I lived and worked with in Africa (who loved it so much she stayed, and also married an Ethiopian). I need to know if she has heard of this.

    Probably, by now.


    1. I’m so glad our posts crossed at just the right time. Please do send this information to your friend. The more people who know about Dr. Hamlin, the better. 🙂


  2. Just catching up on my blog reading and I am so glad I started with this one. Along with most other women in the developed world (I guess) I had never heard of fistula. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Dr Hamlin is truly amazing and the trust she engenders in those illiterate (I assume) women is remarkable.


    1. You’re so right, Judith. Trust is such an important component of the work Dr. Hamlin does. I hadn’t thought about it that way before.


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