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Mamitu: One of BBC’s 100 Women in 2018

An inspirational woman

Once a patient with obstetric fistula, Mamitu Gashe became an internationally renowned fistula surgeon and a much loved member of the team at Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Today she is Dr Catherine Hamlin’s daily companion; they affectionately refer to each other as ‘mother’ and ‘daughter.’

Mamitu’s inspirational story was recognised last year, when she was named one of BBC’s 100 most influential and inspiring women for 2018.

Listen to Mamitu telling her remarkable story in her own words:

May 16, 2019 the BBC Radio

From fistula sufferer to fistula surgeon

Like many fistula sufferers in Ethiopia, Mamitu was very young and lived in a remote rural part of Ethiopia. When she was 16, she had a complicated childbirth that resulted in complex obstetric fistula injuries. Her baby was stillborn.

“If you have no leg, you can go with a crutch. If you are blind, [there is] somebody to help you around. For fistula, this is worse. Family, father, brother, mum, they can’t help…I would be ashamed, because when I get up, there might be a smell, [I] might be leaking and soaked to the clothes…I want to be alone.” – Mamitu

Mamitu came to Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1962, when she was 16, and was welcomed with love and kindness by Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin.

“When I first arrived at the Princess Tsehai Hospital, Reg held me like his own daughter. It was such a good feeling and I was happy. He was like a good father…I’ll never forget him.” – Mamitu

In the early years when she was undergoing treatment, Reg and Catherine employed Mamitu at the hospital and she began by helping make the patients’ beds. Soon, Reg and Catherine saw something special in Mamitu.

It was not long before Mamitu was helping in the operating theatre. She started by sewing up wounds at the end of an operation and then started making initial incisions. Soon, she progressed to treating obstetric fistula injuries.

Under Hamlins’ guidance and training, Mamitu went on to become recognised as one of the finest fistula surgeons in the world. In 1989 she won the Gold Medal for surgery from the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

A skilled surgeon with empathy

At age 72, Mamitu still lives on the grounds of Hamlin’s Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Her personal experience with fistula has given her a deep sense of empathy and love for patients who come to the hospital. Catherine says she has often seen her with tears in her eyes as she welcomes new patients.

Just like Catherine, Mamitu has dedicated her life to helping women suffering a fistula injury. Mamitu and Catherine see each other daily. They drink tea and walk the grounds of the hospital together each morning. They are family and have shared decades of work to help the world’s most vulnerable women.

An influential and inspiring woman

Mamitu’s story from a young illiterate girl suffering from obstetric fistula, to one of the world’s finest fistula surgeons, is remarkable. In 2018, Mamitu was listed as number 32 on the BBC 100 Women list. She is listed amongst other leaders, trailblazers and everyday heroes.

Author: Felicity Duong, intern at Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation

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Hamlin Fistula NZ is committed to providing ongoing support for fistula surgery and for the preventive work of the midwives. The hospital in Addis Ababa has become a centre of excellence to which doctors from other countries come to learn and master the specialist skills of fistula surgery.

Photography credits to Mary F. Calvert, Kate Geraghty, Amber Hooper, Joni Kabana, Joli Wescombe, Natasha Meyer and Martha Tadesse.