When a woman endures prolonged labor while giving birth, her bladder or rectal tissue rips or tears, forming a fistula, a hole between her birth passage and internal organs. A simple surgery costing $300 can fix the problem, but without access to care—90 percent of fistula sufferers live in the developing world—the woman is left incontinent, unable to have children, and stigmatized in her family and community. Christian physician L. Lewis Wall wrote about fistulas—faced by 2-3 million women worldwide—in this month's issue of Christianity Today, connecting their plight to that of the unclean woman in Mark's gospel (5:25-34).
Thankfully, two Christian doctors, Reginald and Catherine Hamlin, have been at the fore in the effort to make fistula repair surgeries available to more women, founding Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia in 1974. A Walk to Beautiful, a 2007 Emmy-winning documentary, highlights their work, capturing day-to-day life for Ethiopian women with obstetric fistulas. (The DVD is 85 minutes; about 50 minutes of it is available online.)
The documentary follows five women on their journeys to have their fistulas repaired and their dignity restored. Their stories are somewhat similar—how they got fistulas, their hurt and shame, their thoughts of suicide—but each of the women is unique. Ayehu, a 25-year-old mother, lives in a makeshift hut because her husband kicked her out and her mother will not allow her to stay in the home. Fikre, a friend, suffered from a fistula for ten years before going to Addis Ababa for surgery, and convinces Ayehu to do likewise. Ayehu marvels, "How can they bring you back to life?"
Alone, Ayehu walks six hours to the bus station. She spends another 17 hours traveling to the hospital. While on the bus, she bites her lips and looks around. The camera shows urine running down her legs and on to the bus floor.
But at the hospital, the mood is drastically different. Women lounge and talk on green grass, or quietly lie in hospital beds while doctors and nurses attend to them. Ayehu smiles as she lies in bed before surgery. "I am very surprised. I never expected there to be a lot of people like this. Everybody is sick. I thought it was only me."
Catherine Hamlin, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and winner of the 2009 Right Livelihood Award, continues to serve at the hospital (Reginald died in 1993). Throughout much of the documentary, her calm, even voice explains her life's work. If you read interviews with her and read her autobiography, The Hospital by the River, it's hard not to be in awe of this Christian woman.
The surgeons, doctors, and nurses dealing with fistula are heroes, yet they humbly go about their business. Sometimes the film feels cold because of their professionalism. Wubete, age 17, has gone to Addis Ababa twice for surgery, but continues to leak urine. One doctor explains that most of her bladder is destroyed because of the fistula, which is why she continues to have problems. When Wubete cries, the doctor gently tells her to leave the room. They still have work to do, as the hospital performs 30 operations a week, and there are 100,000 women in Ethiopia alone who need fistula repair.
For such a large but obscure problem as fistula, the little time it takes to watch A Walk to Beautiful is well spent. And who knows? It might inspire you to make a difference.
Elissa Cooper wrote about the campaign to defeat fistula in the January issue of CT.