A PRINCESS CAME TO TOWN

One famous Australian woman met another in Ethiopia recently, when Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark met Dr Catherine Hamlin AC on her home turf in Addis Ababa. Princess Mary was on her second and longest visit to Ethiopia as part of a three-day humanitarian trip. She chose to make time to visit legendary Australian obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Catherine Hamlin, the staff and patients at Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Both women, recognised and known across the globe for their grace, humility, compassion and style forged a natural bond over a cup of Ethiopian tea and home-made biscuits on the verandah of Catherine Hamlin’s home for the last 56 years.

Visiting the fistula hospital and meeting the patients was an emotional experience for Princess Mary as she was moved by the life-changing work of Dr Catherine Hamlin and her dedicated staff. No clearer example of the critical work being undertaken by the hospital was the newborn baby girl whom the princess was able. Princess Mary’s natural warmth and graciousness was praised by Feven Haddis, Deputy CEO and Global Communications Director of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, “We were delighted the Princess was able to shine a light on the work of Dr Catherine Hamlin and her team here in Ethiopia. Princess Mary was very knowledgeable about obstetric fistula and the challenges we have ahead of us to eradicate this terrible childbirth injury.”

Princess Mary was taken on a tour of the main ward of the fistula hospital where she was able to meet local Ethiopian staff and the patients. She left the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital that day not only with gifts of jewellery from the patients but also an ongoing admiration for Dr Catherine Hamlin and the Ethiopian staff for their dedication and care to improving the lives of Ethiopian women.

The Princess remarked, “I have met so many angels here in Ethiopia and one of them is 91-year-old Dr Catherine Hamlin. She has done so much for the women of Ethiopia and it was a great experience to meet and talk to her today”.

Princess Mary’s trip to Ethiopia was an intensive three days with a focus on the enhancement and improvement of women and children’s health care and humanitarian rights, an ongoing passion of hers. Her trip began with a visit to the refugee camp in Gambella, where she opened a youth centre and was delighted to watch the refugees perform singing and dancing. In what is known as hottest inhabited place on earth, the Afar region, Princess Mary met women and children staying at a safe house who had been affected by violence and abuse and was moved by their stories of survival.

Travelling to Ethiopia to meet the local people, hear their stories and witness the inspirational work of committed individuals and agencies first hand was a reflection of Princess Mary’s unflagging charitable and advocacy work for improved health care and humanitarian rights for women and children around the world. Since becoming a member of the Danish Royal family, Princess Mary has championed many causes that are close to her heart and in 2007 she established The Mary Foundation to improve the lives of people who are isolated and excluded from society. She has been recognised for her exhaustive humanitarian work and in 2014 received The Bambi Charity Award in Berlin for her social engagement and focus on domestic violence. As Patron of the United Nations Population Fund, she is committed to the work of the United Nations in promoting maternal health and safer motherhood in more than 150 developing nations.

Her ability to easily relate to local people may be a reflection of her own simple life. Princess Mary was not born into royalty but was originally born in Tasmania, Australia, the youngest of four children. She studied law and commerce and moved into managing real estate in Sydney. She met her husband to be, Crown Prince Frederik, whilst he was in Australia for the Sydney Olympic Games. They married in 2003. Mary won the hearts of the Danish people by learning what is acknowledged as a difficult language, Danish. She and Prince Frederik now have four children and together they have continued to actively support a range of organisations and charities across the world.

This Q&A was published in Sydney Alumni Magazine (SAM), November 2014. Dr Hamlin graduated in medicine at the University of Sydney in 1946.

By Michael Visontay

Catherine and midwivesDr Catherine Hamlin is a gynaecologist who has spent most of her life in Ethiopia. Over the past 40 years she has revolutionised care of a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula – this occurs when the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and there is no doctor to perform a cesarean section.

Up to two million women worldwide suffer from fistulas, mainly in developing countries. The babies die, and women are left incontinent and stigmatised by their families and communities.

Dr Hamlin’s lifelong commitment to help them was recognised in a moving celebration in Addis Ababa, 2014, when she turned 90. In 2014, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the second time. The first was in 1999.

Dr Hamlin graduated as doctor from the University of Sydney in 1946 and after several internships became a resident in obstetrics at Crown Street Women’s hospital, where her husband-to-be, Reginald Hamlin, was medical superintendent.

In 1958 they answered an ad in The Lancet to set up a midwifery school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They had never seen an obstetric fistula, and the prevalence of the problem prompted them to eventually set up a hospital dedicated to treating the condition.

Since founding the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974, they have trained generations of doctors to repair fistulas. It has provided a model that has been replicated in other countries, where foundations and clinics now try to prevent as well as treat the condition. In 2005, in recognition of her achievements, the University awarded Dr Hamlin an Honorary Doctorate of Medicine.

Ahead of the announcement about the Nobel Prize, SAM asked Dr Hamlin about her medical and humanitarian journey.

WHAT IMPACT DID YOUR EDUCATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY HAVE ON YOUR CAREER?

“I graduated medicine at the University of Sydney in 1946. I had decided to study medicine in my last year at school, but it was during my fifth year of university that I had one of the most defining experiences of my life. I went to hear a famous missionary speaker, Reverend Hugh Paton in Sydney, and was deeply moved by his message.

It prompted my desire, and my conviction that some day I would help others in this world. So in actual fact, it was my time at Sydney University that completely set the course of my life to spend more than half a century in Ethiopia with the poorest, most wretched patients of all.”

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN ETHIOPIA IN THE FIRST PLACE?

“I believe God guided Reg and me to Ethiopia. We were searching for more fulfilling work in a developing country and we answered an advertisement in The Lancet medical journal for gynaecologists needed in Addis Ababa. It was to set up a school of midwifery. We had no idea this opportunity would lead to our life’s work.

We had never seen an obstetric fistula before arriving in Ethiopia; it was an academic rarity. We initially worked at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa, and as news of our success in saving lives and curing obstetric fistula spread more and more patients followed.

In 1974 we founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. I have a tremendous love for the work and the people. The plight of our poor patients is so terrible; what we are trying to do is to prevent these injuries and wake up the world.”

ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC THAT THE FISTULA PROBLEM IN ETHIOPIA WILL BE REMEDIED?

“I know that my dream of eradicating obstetric fistula from Ethiopia will not be achieved in my own lifetime, but it just may in the next. To be able to train dedicated young doctors and midwives is marvellous for me and my loyal staff, especially as they become enthusiastic about helping these poor women. It gives me confidence that the eradication of obstetric fistula can be achieved.

There are thousands of new cases in the countryside as the population continues to climb and there is still a backlog of some 40,000 cases we have not reached but our large hospital in Addis Ababa and the five regional centres continue in the fight to save women’s lives.

The Hamlin College of Midwives is also working to train local midwives to prevent obstetric fistula. If these poor women who come to us had only had access to a trained midwife early in labour they would have recognised something was wrong and been sent to the nearest hospital.

My work and that of the hospitals is important, but it is more important to prevent fistula in the first instance and our midwives can achieve this. My dream is for there to be a midwife in every village of Ethiopia.”

WILL YOU EVER RETIRE?

“I know I haven’t many years left ahead but I have no plans to retire. I still work six days a week. I could never imagine just living here and not working. Reg and I came to Ethiopia motivated to help people and the work we started together is not finished.

I will carry on for as long as I possibly can. There are six hospitals and a midwifery school to keep going, and I have to continue to raise money to fund them. It is this work that keeps my heart going, and my life going.”

When Dr Catherine Hamlin was born in January 1924, “Happy Birthday to You” was first published, the first winter Olympics were held in France, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was number one in the US charts and Stanley Bruce was the Prime Minister of Australia! It’s been 91 years and Dr Hamlin has certainly had a remarkable life. Between 1924 and 2015 Dr Hamlin has achieved more than most, co-founding the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital with her husband Reginald and spending more than half a century living in Ethiopia, serving some of the most marginalised women in the world.

During her lifetime, Dr Hamlin has lived through World War II (she was studying medicine in Sydney throughout the war) and after moving to Ethiopia in 1959, lived through three government regimes and the disastrous famine on the 1980s. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and her brave patients were always Dr Hamlin’s focus through the most challenging times.

At age 91, Dr Hamlin still takes an active role in the leadership of the hospital and lives in her cottage on the banks of the river within the hospital grounds.

In the last year Dr Hamlin has officiated another successful graduation at the Hamlin College of Midwives and was nominated for a second time for a Nobel Peace Prize. What a year it has been.

This year, Dr Hamlin celebrated her birthday in Addis Ababa with some very special guests and patients. It was quiet an intimate occasion compared to last year’s 90th birthday celebration for several hundred guests.

Dr Catherine Hamlin's 91st Birthday

Pictured here on her birthday in January 2015, Dr Hamlin celebrates with her patients.