Tribute to Dr Catherine Hamlin

This week, the world is mourning the sad loss of Dr Catherine Hamlin, who passed away peacefully at her home in Addis Ababa, aged 96.

Gillian Slinger with Dr Catherine Hamlin resized

Australian born obstetrician-gynaecologist and pioneering founder of the modern day fight against obstetric fistula, Dr Hamlin moved to Ethiopia with late husband Reginald in 1959. Subsequently, a humble yet incredibly passionate humanitarian, Dr Hamlin dedicated the rest of her life, alongside her husband, to treating women and girls with obstetric fistula in Ethiopia and other countries.

She was also a tireless campaigner, bringing this most neglected and vulnerable group to the world’s attention.

Through her outstanding fistula work (both prevention and treatment) and as a women’s health advocate in Ethiopia and worldwide, Dr Hamlin earned endless awards and accolades from medical institutions, presidents, prime ministers, royalty and celebrities to name but a few.

Most importantly, over the decades, her work inspired countless others to help women with obstetric fistula across Africa and round the world. Dr Hamlin also became known as the ‘Saint of Ethiopia’ and was one of few people to become a global hero and true legend in her own lifetime.

As a midwife with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the past, I was deeply moved by the plight of women suffering with obstetric fistula, a devastating childbirth injury, occurring in the world’s most disadvantaged communities. I had an active role developing projects to help affected women through the provision of specialised surgical treatment and care. However, knowing the sheer magnitude of their suffering, I could not rest; each one like my own sister.

Meeting Dr Hamlin

Driven to provide more help, I made every effort to build my knowledge by attending fistula events and reading extensively. In addition, I spent all my vacations working in fistula treatment facilities with some of the world’s leading fistula surgeons. It was during this time, while I was still with MSF, that I met Dr Catherine Hamlin for the first time in the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where I was spending two weeks to learn more about clinical management of women with the condition.

Although I had already read Catherine’s book, The Hospital by the River, I was in the fistula hospital shop that day to buy two precious ‘purchased onsite’ copies of the book when Catherine walked in. I was immediately struck by her gentle humility and the natural connection she had with the staff in the shop. In a friendly, unassuming manner, she asked who I was and what I was working on. I was ‘star-struck’ and taken aback to meet her so unexpectedly and replied I was a midwife with MSF and that I wanted to work full time on fistula as soon as possible and for the rest of my career.

Assuming she must have met countless enthusiastic soles like me visiting the fistula hospital and making similar assertions, I imagined she would treat me with polite disdain. I was wrong. Instead, and to my amazement, she invited me to sit with her and we started to talk for a long time about multiple issues relating to obstetric fistula and the shattering impact it has on women’s lives. She then held the two books I was buying in her hands and, looking deep into my eyes, enquired who they were for.

Asking my name, she signed the first book for me. Then knowing I was buying the second book for my mother, she asked for my mother’s name. ‘Betty’ I replied.

What she wrote in my mother’s book that day 14 years ago was simple and powerful. Her words were a source of great inspiration to me then, and have without fail, continued to inspire me over the years, each time I have read them since:

Dear Betty

Thank you for your daughter Gillian who will play a major role in helping women and girls with obstetric fistula in the future.

My sincere gratitude for all she is going to accomplish and wishing her well in the journey ahead.

Catherine Hamlin

My mother treasured her copy of the book, containing Dr Hamlin’s hand written message.
Much time has since passed, and I now treasure both copies of the book. Shortly after that first meeting with Dr Hamlin, I started to work full time on obstetric fistula and have continued to do so ever since, each day with more commitment and resolve, no matter how great the challenges.

Since our first meeting, I have met Dr Hamlin numerous times. The last time was in the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in September 2017, when in my present role as Senior Project Manager of the FIGO Fistula Surgery Training Initiative, we were holding a Fistula Surgeon Trainer’s meeting in the hospital, which is a FIGO Training Centre. To our delight, Dr Hamlin not only attended the meeting, she also generously offered all participants a copy of her book; The Hospital by the River, each one containing her hand written signature in the front.

The world has indeed lost a global hero, who devoted her entire life to caring for more than 60,000 of the poorest, most marginalised women through her pioneering fistula work in Ethiopia. She may be gone physically, but her legacy will live on for decades to come through the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation and Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. Critically, her vital work will continue long in to the future, as all those who have been so inspired by her over the years carry the Hamlin flag firmly forward.

The following is a final personal message for Dr Hamlin:

Dear Catherine

Thank you for all your incredible work and the major role you have played in helping women and girls with obstetric fistula.

My sincere gratitude for all you accomplished and wishing you well in the journey ahead.

RIP dear Dr Hamlin

Gillian Slinger