Obstetrician Catherine Hamlin might be the world’s best-known doctor you’ve never heard of. Born in Australia all the way back in 1924, she, along with her New Zealand-born husband Reg, a gynaecologist, spent the greater part of their lives in Ethiopia. Reg passed away in 1993, but Catherine is still there, alive and kicking.
It was midwifery that brought the Hamlins to Ethiopia – or rather, the lack of midwives, leading the Ethiopian government to put an ad in The Lancet, calling for doctors to start a midwifery training school. Having arrived in Addis Ababa in 1959, they were soon confronted with a problem closely associated with the lack of midwives: women who, after having given birth, suffered from obstetric fistula, leading to incontinence. This, in its turn, often leads to them being abandoned by their husbands and convicted to a life of loneliness and misery.
The Hamlins developed a successful surgical solution to the problem, and women from all over Ethiopia started coming to their hospital. In 1974, they opened their own specialized hospital, dedicated to treating fistula patients and achieving a success rate of over 90%. Later, five more of these hospitals were opened. Over the years, more than 44,000 women have been treated. For those women who could not be healed, a small village was built where they receive the care they need.
The Hospital by the River is of course the story of Catherine Hamlin’s rather exciting life against a backdrop of the often-difficult political circumstances in Ethiopia. That life however, has been intertwined with that of the fistula patients for over five decades now, so the book inevitably also is their story. And on a higher level, it is also the sometimes-tragic story of mother and child care in Africa. The book witnesses to the fact that much progress has been achieved over the last decades, but also to the fact that much still has to be done, as even in the 21st century obstetric fistula still plague approximately two million women worldwide.
In that sense, The Hospital by the River is also a story of midwives. Having moved to Ethiopia to set up a government run midwifery school, Catherine would eventually open her own training center for midwives. She tries to instill a high sense of duty in her students, who can play a pivotal role in preventing obstetric fistula from developing in the first place. She doesn’t beat around the bush: it is her dream to have a midwife available in every Ethiopian village.
The Hospital by the River has plenty to offer, both to those who like to read about fascinating lives, and to those interested in obstetric matters. Well written and with a pinch of understated humor, this book makes an inspiring Christmas holiday read.
Dr. Catherine Hamlin with John Little. The Hospital by the River. Updated edition. Monarch Books: Oxford. 2016.