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The kidnapping of Dr Ken Elliott has caused Derryn Hinch to reflect on the anonymous work Australian and New Zealand medicos have been doing in Africa for decades.
She was sitting in a corner, in a torn sort of brown dress, crouched over, on a rickety wooden chair. Could have been 24. Could have been 40.
And to her mortification, water dripping through the chair slats had pooled on the wooden boards of the clinic verandah.
The young woman (she was actually 20) had walked for two days through the mountains in Ethiopia to get help at a small clinic on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
The walk, she told us through an interpreter, was worth it – even if she had died along the way.
For two years she had lived as a social leper, an outcast in her own village, because of a medical condition caused during childbirth. The reason for that embarrassing pool of fluid.
The young mother had developed a fistula after a marathon labor and difficult birth – in a village where caesarean sections were unheard of. The strain of delivering her baby had torn a hole between her vagina, bladder and rectum.
She lived, 24 hours a day, with the shame and stench of faeces and urine.
Her husband had abandoned her and, over two years, her weight had dropped to about 30 kilos. She was emaciated because she said she didn’t like to drink. She didn’t like to leak.
I was visiting the Ethiopian clinic as a secondary human interest story after raising $400,000 from 3AW listeners and personally taking a cargo plane load of food, cooking oil and blankets to Africa during the 1983-85 famine.
We’d heard about this incredible Australian couple (from memory, he originally came from New Zealand) who were running a very successful little hospital totally devoted to repairing fistulas and instantly repairing women’s lives.
When I met them in 1984, doctors Reg and Catherine Hamlin, had been running the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for ten years. Purely on donations, mainly from Down Under.
Both gynaecologists and obstetricians, the couple had never even seen a post-natal fistula when they first arrived in Ethiopia to train local midwives in a primitive government hospital in 1959.
(The condition had been virtually eradicated in the west after caesarean deliveries were introduced in the 1930s.)
Now, four or five women a day have their plumbing repaired at the hospital. About 1,700 a year. Each procedure costs $600 and, in such a poverty-stricken country, afflicted women sometimes beg for years to raise the necessary funds.
Some patients with pelvic damage and renal problems cannot be cured, but most are.
I vividly remember Reg (who died in 1993) and Catherine (now 92) proudly taking us on a tour of the facilities they set up after the government decided ordinary nurses were cheaper and could do a midwife’s job. So their training services were no longer needed at the government hospital.
The Hamlins told how they started a tradition where, post-operation, each patient was given a bright new floral dress to wear, odourless, back to her village.
And we saw some of them getting ready to go home.
Since Reg Hamlin died, the hospital has been upgraded, several regional fistula clinics have been set up, a rehab village has been established nearby for women who have not been cured and a training program for village midwives is underway.
Having witnessed what decades of service in Ethiopia had been achieved by the Hamlins, I know what Jocelyn and 81-year-old Ken Elliott have done in Burkina Faso and wonder what blinded goons would kidnap such samaritans.
As that news took me down memory lane, I wondered if that wretched soul on the verandah in Addis Ababa ever got to wear a clean, bright new dress.