There are national treasures and then there are living legends—Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin is both, as Julie Houghton discovers.
Catherine Hamlin was a privileged, privately-educated Sydney schoolgirl who found her life’s work in obstetrics. But she decided that the comfortable consulting rooms she could have in Australia were not for her. With her medico husband Reg, the poverty-stricken land of Ethiopa was to become their destiny.
Catherine and Reg headed to Ethiopa in 1959 for a three-year stint as obstetricians and gynaecologists to set up a midwifery school at the Princess Tsehay Hospital in Addis Ababa.
Neither Reg nor Catherine had seen a fistula (an internal tear occurring during childbirth, often in a physically immature young mother, which results in permanent incontinence), because sophisticated Australian hospital care meant that women here had appropriate prenatal and birth care.
‘We were touched and appalled by the sadness of our first fistula patient: a beautiful young woman who had been through a long labour of five days with only the village women to help,’ Catherine writes at hamlin.org.au.
Women with untreated fistulas are shunned by their relatives, abandoned by their husbands, and housed in crude village huts away from people so their condition doesn’t interfere with other people’s lives.
Catherine and Reg soon realised that, with appropriate medical help, the life-destroying fistula could be repaired with a single surgery. So they refused to abandon the women of Ethiopia after their three-year stint and stayed, with their hospital now having successfully treated more than 45,000 patients.
It’s no wonder Catherine was given Australia’s highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia, in 1995. And in November 2016, she was given another high honour of a more populist nature—the newest Sydney ferry has been named the Catherine Hamlin Ferry, following a competition shared on Facebook. Catherine may have lived in Ethiopia for nearly six decades, but she is proudly Australian, and Australia is justifiably proud of her.
Many people in the world do good works, but Catherine is clear about her motivation for what she does.
‘I am a Christian. I feel that God is behind this work. I know that from my own experience—I’ve prayed for things earnestly and I’ve received them, and I know that God is real and somebody who loves these women,’ she told the ABC’s Sunday Profile program in 2008.
Apart from the hospital, for which village women save the bus fare and travel hundreds of kilometres to reach, there is now the Hamlin College of Midwives, and since 2007, 105 midwives have graduated. There is also the Desta Mender farm and training facility, a special recovery centre for badly damaged women.
What has pleased Catherine the most is the amazing word of mouth that the thousands of patients they have repaired take back to their villages, and Catherine’s work has support from the male-dominated Orthodox church.
‘We’ve even got quite a number of priests in the Orthodox church, whose wives have been repaired. They get up in the pulpit and they say, “Anyone who’s leaking urine come to me and I can cure you”, and they bring us patients, and now everyone is aware of the problem,’ Catherine told Sunday Profile.
Catherine is very proud that there are many former patients who now work in the hospitals as nurses, and the organisation is now setting up mini-hospitals across Ethiopia.
Fundraising is an important part of continuing Catherine’s work, and while she says fistula won’t be prevented in her lifetime, she has high hopes that it will eventually happen. Typically modest, her message is simple and direct.
‘I just want the world to know that there are women suffering and there’s something that can be done about it.’
To find out more about Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, visit www.hamlin.org.au.