Ethiopia: Funds For Surgeries

Anna and Lori did not know each other very well a few short months ago.  Yet when they both heard about the medical plight of rural Ethiopian women, they were moved in a way that they could not help but get involved.

They decided to focusing on raising funds for the surgeries so that the women did not have to pay for these services.  At $150 per surgery, they were confident they could gather enough money to pay for 10-15 surgeries.  Little did they know that once they put their energy together, they would become a combustible force!

The idea of planning an event to raise funds was quickly considered.  Neither of them had fund-raising or event planning experience, but they both were driven to create something that touched the hearts of stateside women enough to make a true difference to these Ethiopian women.  The event would entail a “Women Helping Women” focus, and they billed the event as a Ladies’ Night Out.  No children invited, plenty of good food and wine, music, a silent auction and a heartfelt presentation.

In one night, they raised over $10,000.

Anna and Lori decided to travel to Ethiopia to determine the most effective place where they would direct the extra money.  Their first priority was to pay for surgeries, even if our doctors could not perform them all.  They would set up a fund for Dr. Tekle, the Gimbie Hospital OB/GYN, to draw from to pay for the additional surgeries.

Once in Ethiopia, they are now faced with sifting through the numerous requests for help.  This is not a comfortable task, and Lori finds herself in tears most of each day.  How can you say yes to one request and no to another, when each carries the same weight of authentic and desperate need?

After a few days of unrest, Lori and Anna realize that this is only the start of their commitment to these women. They will make a selection for this visit, and will go back home with the knowledge of various areas of need and will continue their fund-raising, involving more people on a grander scale.

Joy returns to them, and their enthusiasm grows each day as they listen to stories and gather information. At the end of each day, I find myself seeking them out, as they exude a galaxy of energy and insight.

Ethiopia: A Midwife’s Role

I ask Paul Howe, the administrator of Gimbie Hospital, what he thinks the hospital needs most.  More midwives is their #1 priority.  If a woman has pre-natal care, signs of difficult pregnancies can be detected early and prolapse or fistulas can be prevented.

Paul would like to see more skilled midwives coming to Gimbie to train local midwives how to make these detections.  Marie, seen here with a patient in labor, is exhausted by the intensity of her work days, yet she consistently soothes each patient with an energetic and loving hand.

Anna, a fundraiser who traveled with us, fills in where needed, quickly learning techniques to comfort a woman in labor.

Ethiopia: Doctors Without Words

When our bodies are ill, we are in a most tender state of being.  This is a time when support is needed in many forms.  When a woman walks miles to a hospital and becomes one of the lucky few who will get to see a doctor, she is at a most vulnerable state.

Here in the US, we ask questions, we are told how our procedures will unfold, we read about conditions, we know the risks.  In Ethiopia, a woman sets aside her fears and bravely surrenders herself to the hands of the doctors who have arrived to help.  She is scared.  She has heard of tales from other women’s experiences at other hospitals where they have experienced excruciating pain due to the lack of anesthesia.  They have seen the infections, disease and early deaths resulting from poor care.

Each woman enters the operating room with hesitant steps, eyes wide open, and silence.  We have interpreters on hand to try to communicate with them, but words rarely are spoken.  The trust level is enormous.

Even when David, the anesthesiologist, has difficulty finding the right spot in Tarike’s back to insert his needle due to her tiny frame, Tarike does not question what is happening.  David’s kind demeanor knows that she is frightened, and he stops often to look into her eyes to try to communicate that all is well.  He frequently asks the interpreter to let her know what is happening, and he softens his voice to try to temper her feelings.

It takes a special doctor to know how to administer care without words.  It takes a special doctor to give up the comforts of a well stocked operating room, with an educated staff, to come to a place and perform surgeries where 50% of the patients have AIDS.

I start to see this operating room as a ballet.  Each movement coordinated and deliberate, graceful hands, tender expressions, bodies flowing together.  At the center is the prima bella, and all eyes are on her.

Ethiopia: New Life

Difficult labor is the cause of prolapse and fistula conditions, yet a rural woman’s purpose in Ethiopia is to get pregnant and raise her children.  Over the years, her body will bear the brunt of extreme pressures, and she rarely is offered the choice to not have more children.  We find that many women who come in for prolapse surgery also want to have their uterus taken out as a contraceptive option.  Abortion does exist in shady corners utilizing sticks and other sharp objects, and some young girls will abandon an unwanted baby. But for the most part, it is a great honor to bear a child and nurture it with vigorous focus and determination.

To witness a woman struggling so very hard to stay well enough to feed her children here is very disheartening.  A human life is precious, and when I look into each child’s face I encounter – whether found wandering on the streets, or in the arms of a loving mother, or working hard to shepherd a herd of cows – I feel a sense of awe in that they are able to survive at all despite so many obstacles.  And yet, they continuously find reasons to express an easy smile.

As I contemplate what might be needed to help this country, I think of several things right away: establishing reproductive and health education, getting more doctors and midwives to be willing to work in rural areas, building more rural hospitals, obtaining sources for clean water, and developing better transportation options for those who are ill.

Yes, it can be overwhelming to see so many problems intertwined and having a domino effect upon each other. But for some reason the thought of new Spring growth comes to mind: is the crocus intimidated by the cold, hard, winter packed Earth?  No, the fragile flower transforms into new life by slowly pushing a tiny bit of dirt away at a time in order to make its way to its fullest expression.  If we really think about it, how does that flower break through the heavy Earth?

Perhaps this is how we can all work together to help a woman in Ethiopia: one small gesture at a time.

Ethiopia: Going Home

As the women heal in the recovery room, I start to see more and more smiles – elation even – and the energy swirls up like a sweet summer ocean wave and starts to take over the room.  The recovery rooms are overflowing, and we have to move patients into the auditorium.  Here, the women chatter happily and start to move around as their bodies heal.

I think back on the Fistula Hospital in Barhirdar, and wish that Gimbie had the same program where women who were recovering received books and other education.  But nothing really matters more on this day other than watching the transformation of spirit.

As I make my way downstairs, I see Jisse, the Oregon doctors’ first patient, as she is walking toward the front door.  Her son is there to help her during her long walk home.  Both of them can hardly contain their joy, and she throws her hands into the air, yelling words that do not need to be translated: she is very much thankful for her improved condition!

Janice, one of the coordinators of our team, is there to hand out dresses that she collected before she left the US.  The women are ecstatic when they see that they each will get a new dress to take home with them.

I think about how little it takes to make someone happy here in Ethiopia.  A pencil.  The sharing of a bit of food.  A wave of a hand.  A used t-shirt.  Clean water.

And health.

Ethiopia: A Generation Of Support

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dinkiyo excitedly leading a very old woman through the hospital hallways.  I find out that this is Tarike’s mother, Dinkiyo’s grandmother.  She has walked from her far away village to greet her daughter after she heard that she came through the surgery well.

Tarike is lucky, as she has her children and her mother by her side.  She is thrilled that she can now return to her wood selling business and her physical condition can allow her to gather more wood and sell it at market.

Ethiopia: A Commitment To Return

As the operating room becomes more and more efficient, patients start to be moved rapidly through their procedures and faces blur.  Stories are very similar: many children to care for, abandonment by their husbands, little food, unsanitary conditions, a desperate pleading to help them become more physically functional.  One by one they come through and I feel myself becoming less shocked by it all.  Even the stench of dead bodily tissue is not as bothersome as when I first arrived.  But what is concerning me at this point is how we take for granted each day back home.  I hear the surgeons talk about the petty complaints from their stateside patients, and I cant shake the sickness I feel in my gut.

Is it really fair that we have so much, and they have so little here?

We discuss our plans to return.  It is the only way we can face the possibility of leaving so soon.

Ethiopia: Sadness From Turning Women Away

Word gets out that doctors from the US are at Gimbie hospital.  Each day, women line up to try to see a doctor.  Some of them have walked for days to get to the hospital.  As we interview the women, we find that most women have lived with a prolapse condition for many years.

When a woman has a prolapse, she experiences a great deal of pain. Sometimes the prolapse includes ulcers that bleed.  Walking, which is their only means of transportation, becomes extremely difficult, thus preventing them from working in the fields, gathering firewood to cook with, and tending to their children. Her children start looking for food elsewhere, and often times the children roam away from home and try to live on their own, banded together foraging for food.

The boys can survive this nomadic lifestyle easier than the girls.  A wandering girl is a target for many things: early marriage, physical abuse, excessive domestic work, rape, and early pregnancy, which starts the cycle all over again.

One can see how desperate a woman becomes when she hears that there is a chance she could be cured.

Even though there are four surgeons, we all soon see that the needs in Ethiopia are overwhelming.  This calls attention to the issue of extended follow up care: our Oregon doctors are performing many surgeries during the week, but there are only a few doctors who can handle the follow up after the Oregon doctors leave.  As the lightning quick bush communication spreads, people start to mob the front doors of the hospital, pushing and shoving to try to get in.  For the women who are lucky enough to have a support system, the fathers and brothers are here to demand that their loved one is seen.  Desperation is readily seen on their faces, and it is disheartening to know that we only have a few more days to get as many surgeries done as possible.  And in order to not overwhelm Dr. Tekle, the lone Ethiopian surgeon who works permanently in Gimbie, we soon will be cutting off surgeries.

Reality sets in, and we all know that one of our most difficult tasks is turning people away, especially after they have walked for days, in excruciating pain, for their only chance for help.

Ethiopia: Jameke & Her Frail Baby

As I pass through the overcrowded aftercare wards, I see a young girl who stands out from the rest of the patients.  She has beautiful deep black skin, and there is an air about her and her family that persuades me go to the nurses’ station to ask about her.  I can’t recall if she is a patient of any of the doctors.  Is everything OK, I ask?  Each nurse just shakes her head and looks away.

I find out that her name is Jemate and she has arrived last night from another hospital.  There, she had tried to give birth to her baby, but the baby could not move through her birth canal.  They tried many things to extract the child, but to no avail.  With her baby wedged in her birth canal, Jemate walked many miles to Gimbie Hospital, and her baby was delivered swiftly by cesarean section.  Her baby, Emanuel, is now holding on, yet fading fast.  Jemate’s family sits in silence.

As we move through our days, I make sure that I check in on Jemate each day to shake hands with each of her family members.  I learn how to say “beautiful” in her language and keep saying it as I peer over Jemate’s father’s shoulders at his grandson, baby Emanuel.

There is stillness between these family members that is difficult to describe.  Coming from a culture where maternal and infant mortality is low, we don’t know the signs of impending death very well.  Everyone here knows that the baby will soon die, and they sit in this accepting silence as other healthy babies cry and are nurtured by other mothers in beds surrounding Jemate.  In addition to baby Emanuel’s fragile condition, Jemate’s body is also recovering from this trauma birth, yet she musters a few smiles through her devastating sadness.

Two days later, we hear that baby Emanuel is still holding on, being fed formula by a syringe.  But, as often happens in Ethiopia, Jemate has slipped into death’s grips while the doctors’ concern was focused toward her child.

Ethiopia: A Baby Is Abandoned

The hospital staff is clearly concerned and something is very wrong.  I hear that the mother who just delivered her first child and is threatening to kill it, has been taken into isolation to be watched.  I find the young girl sitting in a stark room, with her baby at her side.  The attending assistant translates for me, and I ask her why she wants to kill her child.  Tears run down her face, and she says that her mind isn’t capable of taking care of a baby, and her father is very upset with her for having a baby. Her mother died when she was 8 years old.  We get little else from her.  When her tears subside a bit, she smiles hesitantly, and looks at the baby beside her, reaching her hand out to touch the newborn girl’s hair.

Just then, I am called into the OR to photograph a particularly odd medical case, and I am torn about fulfilling my duties to the surgeon and staying near this mother. The attending assistant assures me that he will stay with her, and she will not harm the baby.

Soon I am scrubbed in and heads down with my macro lens into an ulcerated prolapse, my mind on rote as I try to figure out the difficult lighting conditions to get a good medical photo. We all get caught up in this surgery, and time flies by.

When we finally exit, we hear that the young mother has left the hospital, abandoning her baby.  The nurses have the baby swaddled in blankets, and we all take turns holding her. We do our best to make her feel loved.

Copyright 2017 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD