Renowned African singer Halima Namakula and American Urogynecologist and Surgeon Dr. Sherry Thomas started their day shortly after 9 a.m. on a rainy morning in a vacant hospital room in Uganda, Africa. Outside, dozens of African women sat quietly on the wet grass with their babies and blankets waiting for their turn to see the doctor. Some had been there for days.
Halima, originally from Africa, had arranged the medical mission and asked Dr. Thomas for her assistance. The job: travel to Jinja Hospital in Uganda to give free medical care to the impoverished women there suffering with fistula. The surgeon did not hesitate to get involved and travelled over 38 hours from Los Angeles, California to meet the challenge.
Obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged labor without prompt medical intervention. The woman is left with chronic incontinence and, in most cases, a stillborn baby.
Like maternal mortality, a fistula is almost entirely preventable-usually by cesarean section. This nightmare of living with fistulas is virtually unknown in the West because of our advanced medical care. But in Africa, where there is very little prenatal care no hospitals close by, women who try to deliver their child at home can have serious complications. Their baby can become lodged in the birth canal and the resulting pressure cuts off blood to vital tissues and causes holes in their bowels and/or bladders. At least 2 million women in Africa are living with the condition.
Many times, the baby does not survive the ordeal, and the would-be mothers, their insides traumatized, are left incontinent. Most become outcasts in their own communities because of the offensive smell that surrounds them day and night. The woman suffering from fistula is oftentimes rejected by her husband and avoided socially- left to languish alone without family or friends. Uganda has the 3rd highest rate of fistula in the world.
"I always knew what life was like in a third world country," says Dr. Thomas, "but I never knew what medical care was like. When I realized how easy it was to fix, I had to help."
When Dr. Thomas first arrived at the hospital, dozens of African women and girls were sitting patiently in the open-air walkways waiting for their name to be called. The outside of the hospital works as a makeshift waiting room, and some women had been there for several days waiting for the doctors arrival. The women track wet footprints and wear urine soaked skirts because of their incontinence, which is the main complication of fistula. Many sit on black plastic garbage bags to absorb the urine and feces that leak constantly from their wounds.
After a short tour of the small, outdated medical center the doctor was ready to get to work. "We were all prepared to go," she recalls "but the African hospital staff had not arrived yet." More than two hours later nurses and orderlies trickle in and begin dressing in tattered scrubs to assist the American doctor. "Things don't move as quickly here as they do in the U.S.," the doctor remembers. "But once we got going, there was no stopping us." She continued to do surgeries for the next 10 days.
For Dr. Sherry Thomas, providing this life changing surgery was a life changing moment. Inspired by the trip, she founded the non-profit organization "Life Changing Moments" to help more women in Africa.
"The cost for this type of surgery is only $50-$200 U.S. dollars per patient," says Dr. Thomas "and yet it is truly life changing for these women who can now be reunited with their families. I believe an online charity that makes it easy to help would a great way to continue this work."
The doctor also invited filmmaker Sandra Mohr and Los Angeles Times journalist Wendy Thermos with her on the trip and produced a movie about the experience called "Life Changing Moments." The documentary follows both an American and African woman through their experience with fistula. It features the music of women's advocate and singer Halima Namakula. The movie can be seen at the non-profit organizations website http://LifeChangingMoments.org.
Life Changing Moments
Dr. Sherry Thomas
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To Help Women in Africa Get the Best Free Medical Care visit: lifechangingmoments.org
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