The Doctors Hamlin
In 1959 Dr. Reginald Hamlin, a New Zealander, and Dr. Catherine Hamlin, née Nicholson, an Australian, both obstetrician/gynaecologists, came to Addis Ababa in reply to an advertisement in the Lancet Medical Journal. There was a need for a Midwifery School and Dr. Reginald Hamlin, previously a teacher, found that the prospect of teaching midwives appealed to him.
However, what faced them upon arrival at the Princess Tsehay Hospital made them realise that they would not be doing much midwifery training due to the sheer number of patients needing their help at the hospital. They did however train four midwives!
The silent shame
Doctors Reg and Catherine Hamlin in the early days at the Princess Tsehay Hospital
On the evening of their arrival, as the Hamlins were settling into their new home, a fellow gynaecologist came to visit them and told them that “the fistula patients will break your hearts.” The Hamlins had never seen an obstetric fistula before. “To us they were an academic rarity,” Catherine recalls in her book, The Hospital by the River.
Before the Hamlins came to Addis Ababa, there was little treatment available for fistula victims. Most such injured women – and there were thousands – had suffered in silence for years.
Drs. Reginald and Catherine Hamlin studied what they could from the original fistula surgeons who had operated in the mid 1850’s and from doctors who were still operating in places such as Egypt. Obstetric fistula had been virtually eradicated in the United States in 1895 and the first fistula hospital closed its doors in New York City in 1925. The Hamlins refined the surgical technique to close obstetric fistulae, while continuing to treat a broad range of obstetric cases. In their first year in Ethiopia, the Hamlins treated 30 fistula patients.
The founding of a hospital
Through first hand experience, the Hamlins quickly became aware of the suffering endured by women with fistulae. Fistula victims are usually shunned so severely due to their odour that even other patients refuse to be near them. Drs. Reginald and Catherine Hamlin knew the fistula women deserved a hospital of their own. The Hamlins worked for more than a decade to establish a fistula hospital, even through a military coup when most foreigners fled Ethiopia. Finally, in 1974, the Hamlins opened the doors of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. It remains the only medical centre in the world dedicated exclusively to fistula repair.
Dr. Reginald Hamlin worked diligently at the Fistula Hospital until his death in 1993. Dr. Catherine Hamlin has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and the list of her humanitarian awards is impressive. She can still be found seeing new patients in outpatients, checking the sick ones on the wards or performing the delicate fistula repair surgery she pioneered more than 40 years ago.