When Catherine Hamlin and her husband Reginald, both physicians, arrived in Ethiopia in 1959 to establish a midwifery school, they thought they would be back home in Australia in two years.
Today, at 83, Catherine Hamlin is still there, continuing the work she and her husband began in their youth – giving the young women of Ethiopia a second chance at life by repairing fistulas, the devastating internal injury many are left with after childbirth.
"We're not patching up old people for a few more years," Dr. Hamlin told Oprah Winfrey in a 2004 appearance on her show. "We're giving a young, beautiful woman a new life, and this is why I stay in Ethiopia. I love them."
Dr. Hamlin is nominated as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of the Year for her groundbreaking and tireless work to improve women’s lives.
Not long after the Hamlins arrived in Ethiopia, a colleague suggested they visit the fistula patients with this warning: "They will break your hearts."
A fistula is a hole that develops between a woman's bladder or rectum and her vagina when blood is cut off to those tissues during a long or obstructed labor. Often the baby is born dead. The women lose control of bodily functions; feces and urine pass through the hole uncontrollably. Because of their smell, women with fistulas are often shunned by their husbands and families and left to die in shame and isolation. Fistulas were eradicated in western countries more than a century ago with the development of cesarean section. But in Ethiopia, where few have access to medical care, as many as 200,000 women currently suffer with fistulas, and another 9,000 develop them each year.
From their first visit to the fistula patients, the Hamlins never looked back. "We were determined to do what we could," Catherine Hamlin said. They developed a surgery to repair fistulas and began performing it free. In 1974, the pair opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, the only hospital in the world dedicated to the injury. They also began traveling to remote places, performing the surgery and teaching other doctors to perform it. To date, they have performed the surgery on more than 33,000 women, most of whom return to their families and rebuild their lives. Reginald Hamlin died in 1993, but his wife continues the work they began together and still performs many of the surgeries herself. In addition, Hamlin Fistula Hospitals has initiated an expansion project to build five mini-fistula hospitals throughout Ethiopia. Each is expected to treat approximately 400 patients per year.
"Dr. Hamlin is the Mother Teresa of our age," wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times this year. He has said she should receive the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor for which she has been nominated. A film about the many women who struggle to reach Dr. Hamlin’s hospital for the surgery, A Walk to Beautiful, premiered earlier this year.
Dr. Hamlin has a great sense of mission about her work. "I believe that God has put me there," she told Oprah. But she knows she won't be here forever, and is spending more time raising awareness about The Fistula Foundation. "I know that God is following these girls," she adds. "He loves them. And I trust in God for the future."