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While working at my uncle’s diagnostic clinic, I was invited to watch four surgeries at the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Fistula Hospital. I was nervous and excited to be in such an important place! Even Oprah has a building on the grounds! Stepping into blue scrubs, a blue cap, and blue booties, I fit right into the room of blue-clad people. Two surgeons worked at the same time snipping, cauterizing, and eventually stitching tissue. Nurses kept a stream of cotton gauze flowing to clear the way for the surgeon’s precise movements. I sat next to a surgeon, marveling at the work in front of me. I was fascinated! This was like a real-life Grey’s Anatomy episode right before my 16-year-old eyes! Taking it all in must have been a bit overwhelming because soon I felt my head spinning.
A loud thump. That was the sound of me hitting the floor. When I awoke several women in blue scrubs towered over me. The surgeons were still at their posts while more nurses continued the stream of gauze. Their concentration was unwavering. After helping me up, a nurse shuffled me over to the tea room and gave me several chocolate bars. After fifteen minutes I was ready to be back in the action even though I was embarrassed to return to the surgeon’s side. I felt ashamed for having such a weak stomach when faced with such important work. I kept thinking about the embarrassment and shame experienced by each woman needing a fistula repair surgery. Could I imagine a life full of social rejection and isolation?
Fistulas occur when a woman’s labor is prolonged for sometimes several days and no C-section is available. The waiting list for fistula repairs holds thousands, and the growing demand for these procedures is greater than the rate of supply. The tissue tearing causes the women to be incontinent and thus they are often deemed cursed by their community. The women are often locked away in small rooms or closets, such that a fistula repair is often accompanied by physical therapy. On top of the social isolation, the children are often stillborn and these women must also grieve the loss of a child.
For the next five hours, I had no further encounters with the floor. Instead, I listened to the nurses and surgeons explain why they valued their work through recounting experiences with previous patients. Later the nurses and I made went through the rest of the campus on rounds.
Unlike an American hospital with its fluorescent lights, the smell of hand sanitizer, and looming white walls, the Fistula Hospital is a series of buildings interrupted by overflowing flowers, trees, and shady resting spots. I’m told the environment helps with both physical and emotional healing. As you pass through rows of beds, women sleep, rest, and sometimes smile. In other rooms, women further along in the healing process learn to read, make crafts, and gain business skills to help them succeed when they are discharged.
The vulnerability and resilience of the patients struck me. I saw how the suffering of a fistula drastically altered the women’s lives but also made them strong and deeply compassionate towards others. Passing through the rows, the patients would greet us and chatter away with the nurses.
The unique opportunity of getting to interact with the staff and patients of the Fistula Hospital solidified, for me, the power of perseverance and value of service. My own daily worries pale in comparison to that of the women I met, while their joy seems to greatly exceed my own. I’ve gained perspective on my own position of privilege and the necessity to fulfill the needs of those in suffering.