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Thursday, February 3, 2011

While she lay lifeless, her baby lay lifeless ...

Laying on her side in the dust, her tiny body was gripped again by a contraction but she no longer had the strength to scream. The baby that had kicked and somersaulted so strongly a few days ago, was now eerily still. As the contractions continued, relentlessly pressing baby against bone, she panted shallowly in the heat and the dust. Raging with fever, she slipped into merciful blackness where there was no pain and there was no screaming.

She lay unconscious within the circular walls of the mud hut, while her husband’s family wrung worried hands. While she lay lifeless, her baby lay lifeless, strangled by the crush of contractions against pelvic bones that were too small to deliver a baby. Sometime within those 3 days of obstructed labor, her baby died … just inches away from life-giving air. And now this 14 year old child, with child, was being poisoned as her baby decayed inside of her.

The third child of nine, when Meseret turned 13, her mother allowed her to be married and she was taken to live in the next village, with her husband and her husband’s mother. Marriage at a young age was common in her village, and although she was scared and missed her mother and brothers and sisters, it was one less mouth to feed for a family that was already chronically malnourished. Her age and her small stature conspired against her, and while her child-size body swelled with child, her pelvic bones were not large enough to let a child pass through.

Somehow, Meseret survived the ripping and tearing, and the poisoning from her dead child. While she lay unconscious, with fever in her veins, the baby decayed and the skull collapsed and he slid from her womb into the dust.

Days went by and the smell from the hut forced the rest of the family out. Her fever subsided and her breathing became more rhythmic as she clawed her way to consciousness. Weak and gaunt, her mother-in-law held a cup of water to her cracked lips. Her mother and sister bathed her broken body there in the dust of the hut, rinsing the blood and urine and feces from between her legs and beneath her body. But the flow of urine and feces did not subside and the stench worsened, and the skin on her legs began to blister and fester from the vile fluids that constantly seeped, and her horror and humiliation worsened as well.

The family “made a shade” for her with some sticks and rags, and laid her there. Out of the hut, so the smell would not permeate every stitch of clothing and make them gag when they ducked through the doorway. Husband packed up and left – who could blame him. She lay there alone in her own filth, eating and drinking as little as possible to staunch the flow of filth that would not stop. “Cursed,” is what the villagers called her.

As we sat in the small auditorium at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, Feven (the Public Relations Director) explained to us what caused obstetric fistula. A girl, too young to be with child, and small statured from chronic malnutrition, may not be able to deliver a baby through the pelvic bones. This is called obstructed labor, and when it happens in a Western Hospital, birth is assisted with forceps or suction or Cesarean (c-section).

In rural Ethiopia, where there is little access to medical care, when the baby’s head lodges in the birth canal, the pressure of the baby’s skull against the pelvic bones compresses the tissue and blood flow stops. When the baby is delivered (usually stillborn) there is a hole (fistula) between the birth canal and bladder and intestines. Waste leaks from the bowels into the birth canal, running in a constant flow down the legs, the acid eating the very skin off the legs and the stench forcing isolation and humiliation. Horror.

Obstetric fistula are all too common in rural Ethiopia and the Hamlin Fistula Hospital has pioneered procedures to repair the fistula – and gift these young girls back their life! Amid the teeming streets and diesel fumes of Addis, lies a quiet, protective sanctuary with white sheets, filtered sunlight through tall windows, quiet female voices, walkways with green ferns enveloping and flowers cascading.

Some girls are paralyzed, hunched or crippled from the birth trauma and need extensive physical therapy just to walk again. Others just need the surgery to stop the flow of bodily fluids. All of them need rehabilitation of the soul from the crippling grip of worthlessness and humiliation from being cast off and shunned.

Each girl is given a bed in this sanctuary and she discovers other young girls existing in the same hell – she is not alone. A colostomy and/or urostomy is performed first, to redirect the bowel and/or bladder to an external bag so that the skin and tissues can heal before the fistula can be repaired.

A colorful, hand-knitted blanket is gifted to each girl and they cocoon themselves in it as they walk the walkways, tucking their stoma bag within its colorful folds. Each girl is also taught a skill so that she can earn a living and hold her head high when she goes home again. As we toured the quiet grounds and wards, we could see groups of girls with their heads together, talking quietly, smiling and nodding, and learning to weave or sew or embroider.

Two patients get fresh air and exercise.  One works on her embroidery skills
while the other talks with a friend (stoma bag is visible beneath her gown). 

Colorful, hand-knitted blankets are an emblem of the hospital and
the girls wrap themselves in color and tuck their stoma bags inside the folds.

Feven explained in a hushed voice, “The saddest thing is that these girls are missing out on the most beautiful part of their lives. They should be talking and walking with their girlfriends, laughing and learning with their mothers, flirting and holding hands with their boyfriend, and truly starting to experience life as a woman. And for lack of knowledge, their bodies are destroyed at the very moment they are giving life.”

The Hamlin Fistula Hospital provides care and life-saving surgery free of charge for the girls whose bodies have been destroyed by child birth – and they ask a few things in return from their patients. If you ever become pregnant again (yes – most are able to get pregnant and deliver a healthy child after fistula repair) you must come to a hospital for pre-natal care and delivery of your baby AND … most importantly, go back to your village and spread the word about the Fistula Hospital – so that other girls seek pre-natal care during their pregnancy (to prevent obstetric fistula) or if they have a fistula, to tell them about the Fistula Hospital so they can be cured.

For more information about the miraculous work being done at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, here are a few resources …

Click HERE to watch a documentary called “A Walk to Beautiful”

Go to your favorite book seller for “The Hospital by the River” by Catherine Hamlin

Click HERE for the website

Greta Byers and a team of volunteers in Wisconsin made over 140 colorful scarves
as gifts for the patients at the Fistula Hospital.  We spent an evening wrapping
lotion, hand-soap, chapstick and a hand-written prayer within each scarf to
deliver to the patients while we visited.

Before travelling to Ethiopia, I asked the hospital if there were any supplies
they needed us to bring.  They requested stoma bags.  A medical supply store
in Iowa donated hundreds and I filled a suitcase with boxes and boxes
of stoma bags.  (Lost in translation ... the hospital requested large holster
stoma bags and I researched high and low for what this holster or belt was. 
When the stoma bags arrived, one look at the brand name "Hollister" and
I understood what they meant.  Not holster - but Hollister.) 


Greta said...

Thanks so much for sharing this and for telling the story so eloquently and vividly from how we saw and heard it. I love the shots you were able to get of the "sanctuary".

Brittany Leigh said...

Karen, thank you so much for sharing this. My eyes are welling up with tears.

May I ask when you visited the fistula hospital? I ask because I was there about a month ago and I think I recognize one of the women in your picture!

Becky Lee Burk said...

Karen, can you post the info for the medical supply store so we can write them thank you cards.

Meggan Lambesis said...

thanks for sharing the story and your experience---so incredibly heartbreaking. it's a good reminder of yet another thing we take for granted here in the U.S.---our reproductive health and the rights that come along with it. it definitely leaves me asking, what can I do to help?

Bob and Cheri said...

I am without words. Thank you so much for sharing this. As the mother of a daughter, born in Ethiopia, I am so thankful for the work you are doing.