Official Obituary from Hamlin Fistula UK

The saint of Ethiopia has died : 24th January 1924 – 18th March 2020

We mourn the death of Dr Catherine Hamlin, the world’s most renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist. In many countries as well as in Ethiopia she was regarded as one of the most experienced fistula surgeons of the modern world.    

People around Addis Ababa have been saying for many years, “Ah! Dr Hamlin – we think of her as Mother Teresa, she has been so kind to us,” and “Catherine Hamlin -she is a woman who is so good, so good. She is a saint.”

In January we were celebrating the 96th Birthday of Dr Catherine Hamlin. Now, sadly we report that the ‘Saint of Addis Ababa’ has died. She restored dignity and hope to Ethiopian women for six decades.

Dr Elinor Catherine  Hamlin  ACMBBSFRCSFRANZCOGFRCOG    

She was born in Australia, one of six children and the child of Elinor and Theodore Nicholson, but her life’s work was in Ethiopia.

Catherine and her late husband Reginald met and married when they were both working at Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia. Catherine was a resident in obstetrics and Reginald was the medical superintendent.

In 1959 their adventurous spirits inspired them to accept a three year contract with the Ethiopian Government to work as obstetricians/gynaecologists and set up a midwifery school in Addis Ababa.

While working in the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital Drs Reginald and Catherine Hamlin asked about the young women waiting to be seen in out-patients. A fellow gynaecologist confided, “The fistula patients will break your heart but there is nothing we can do for them.”

The Hamlins soon developed a modern surgical technique to close obstetric fistula injuries. Their procedure has since been taught to doctors all over the world. 

Dr Catherine often told the story of the first patient they operated on, “She was just a little girl, 16 or 17 who’d endured  an obstructed labour for five days and delivered a stillborn child, tearing a hole between her birth canal and bladder,  leaving her leaking urine uncontrollably. She sat in out-patients, expecting to be seen last, because she was smelling badly …. Reginald made a great fuss of her, and she was the first patient we cured.  Of course that was a wonderful moment,  being able to send her home in a new dress with hope in her heart. That was what made me realize we were in Ethiopia for a purpose.” Within three years they had operated on three hundred such fistula patients.

As news of a cure spread, many came seeking treatment. To cater for the demand they decided what was needed was a hospital dedicated to helping these poor fistula patients. And so began their fundraising.

They officially opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974.

For more than sixty years Dr Catherine dedicated her life to helping the most marginalised women in Ethiopia. Reginald died in 1993 but Catherine never doubted the work they began must continue. When describing the lives of her patients she was often heard to say,

“Our patients have faced agonising journeys to get here from remote areas, including a typical two-day walk to the nearest road followed by lengthy travel by bus;  a labour of four, six or even seven days followed by a stillbirth and the devastating injuries caused by obstructed labour”.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr Catherine’s strength in the face of adversity is inspiring. She has never faltered in her mission to help fistula sufferers, regardless of personal or national upheaval – the hospital doors always stayed open.

There was the fall of supporter and dear friend Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the military coup and bullets from warring factions that peppered the wall of their house, there was a civil war for 17 years, the “Red Terror” slaughter of up to 500,000 opponents of the new Communist government in the late ’70s; and terrible famine during the ’80s. Everyone saw what an incredible job the Hamlin’s were doing and simply left them alone.

Since the beginning of the Hamlins work in Ethiopia the patients have been arriving at the Fistula Hospital seeking help from the dedicated doctors and staff, both previous and present, their bodies and spirits broken by these devastating injuries. Here they are helped to return to a normal life. Wearing urine-soaked clothes, each of them walks into the special hospital and is able to walk out wearing a new dress and a warm colourful shawl around her shoulders. This is one of the most moving experiences one could hope to see.

When the young women have been treated, they either need to stay for further rehabilitation or are free to return home. Dr Catherine Hamlin would describe this moment, “We don’t just say to them now you are cured, just go out of the gate and you will be alright. They wouldn’t know where to go. They wouldn’t have money to get home. So twice a week we take them in our vehicles, in our Land Rover or a 4-wheel drive, up to the market area where the buses leave and we pay their fares back to their villages”.

More than 60,000 women of all religions and backgrounds have had their health and dignity restored free of charge since the hospital opened.

Dr Hamlin lived most of her life in her house in the grounds of her  Fistula Hospital She was adored by her patients, her staff and the Ethiopian people. In later years she was frequently referred to as “Emaye” meaning Mother. Dr Hamlin committed her life to, and spent her life’s work treating thousands of women, and changing their lives for the better.

Thanks to the Hamlin’s’ Addis Ababa has become the world’s headquarters for fighting fistula. The first meeting of the International Society of Obstetric Fistula Surgeons was held there in 2008.

Dr Catherine was most proud of her Hamlin Model of Care – holistic healing that is part of every patient’s treatment. “We don’t just treat the hole in the bladder, we treat the whole patient with love and tender care, literacy and numeracy classes, a brand-new dress and money to travel home.”

If Ethiopians ever forget what fistula is, one woman they can thank is Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian, and a Christian, who in 1974 opened the first fistula hospital in Addis Ababa with her late husband Reginald.

All of this happened because Dr Catherine Hamlin had a life-changing idea …….. to eradicate fistula forever.

As well as the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, there are also five small outreach hospitals strategically placed around Ethiopia, a Rehabilitation Centre helping women to learn life-skills by which they can earn money and so enable them to become self-sufficient, and a Midwifery College to help in the prevention of these injuries.

The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has become a world centre for fistula treatment, rehabilitation, training and prevention. Dr. Hamlin’s work put obstetric fistula on the world’s health agenda, and her work has been internationally recognized by governments and professional medical societies around the world.

We thank everyone who has supported Dr Catherine Hamlin on this journey in helping to achieve her idea of a community where women of all backgrounds, who are ashamed and in despair, are welcomed with love and care.

Dr Hamlin was honoured to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and again in 2014.

In the final chapter of her book, ‘The Hospital by the River’ she says, “I have come to the end of my story of the fistula pilgrims – a story that I leave others to continue and finish. Eventually, I hope they will be able to write that there is no longer a need for a fistula hospital, as Ethiopia will have become a country where every woman can be assured of a safe delivery”.    

“When I die, this place will go on for many, many years until we have eradicated fistula altogether – until every woman in Ethiopia is assured of a safe delivery and a live baby.”

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Hamlin has trained many to carry on her important mission. At her 90th birthday party she told those who had gathered to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman: “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that is happening to women: suffering – untold suffering in the countryside. I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”

And so we continue to “carry on” her wishes. The world is more aware of the devastating effects of obstetric fistula because of her.  What an amazing lady! 

Dr Hamlin has written an inspiring  memoir about her life’s work to end fistula, “The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope”.  There is also a collection of stories of hope about the people affected by Dr. Hamlin’s work entitled “Catherine’s Gift”.

Her energy and unyielding will over the decades have resulted in the transformation of thousands of lives of Ethiopian women. Dr Hamlin has left behind a legacy of talent and ideas of how the organisation and her life’s work should continue.

Dr Hamlin and her husband gave us a lifelong lesson that heroism is saving human life, feeling humanity and standing by the marginalised  

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed