Meet Mary

Mary, from rural West Pokot, Kenya, received free fistula repair surgery in 2015 after being referred for treatment by a community health worker. With a bright future ahead, she wishes to become a fistula ambassador herself.

Mary's Story

From Patient Gown to Graduation Gown

By Lindsey Pollaczek, Program Director

On May 23, the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, we kicked off the day with a lively procession through the outskirts of Mumias, a town in western Kenya. Our group was about 75 strong—including advocates, community health workers, local politicians, and fistula survivors—walking together in solidarity to raise awareness about fistula. We had been walking for more than two hours in the beating sun when I thought I saw her out of the corner of my eye. Her tight spiral curls were bouncing up and down in rhythm with the marching band and her bright red Action on Fistula T-shirt matched the beat. Then she turned and flashed her brilliant smile—a smile I will never forget. It was Mary.

I had last seen Mary 10 months before at Cherangany Nursing Home, one of our busiest fistula treatment centers in western Kenya. Mary had arrived at the center after living with fistula for seven years. Like many women from her rural West Pokot community, she had gone into labor at home, with the help of a traditional birth attendant. She labored for three days before she was finally hoisted onto a homemade stretcher and carried on two men’s shoulders to the nearest facility. The walk took three painful hours, and by the time she reached the hospital it was too late. Her stillborn baby was removed and soon after she began leaking urine uncontrollably. Mary had developed a fistula.

She returned to a very cold reception from her husband, who refused to cover her hospital bills and blamed her for not being able to give him a baby. He threw her out. Embarrassed and ashamed, she returned to her parents’ home, where she lived for seven years. She felt lonely, bitter, and trapped. Before, she had been one of the lucky few girls in her community to attend primary school; now, it seemed as if all her luck had vanished.

But Mary is a fighter. After some time she, resolved to stop mourning her condition and do more with her life. Even though she struggled gravely with fistula she did the best she could to sell cereal in a local market—just enough to help her buy soap and petroleum jelly, which she needed to care for the sores she developed as a result of the continually leaking urine. She was overjoyed the day she finally received information from a WADADIA community health worker, who advised her that her condition could be treated and directed her to Cherangany Nursing Home.

Less than a year later, Mary had left her hospital gown behind and was now proudly donning a graduation gown. After the processional and celebration in Mumias, six women changed from their red T-shirts into graduation cap and gown. They are the first class of graduates to complete the six-month residential skills training program coordinated by our partner WADADIA. Mary and the other former fistula patients received intensive training and support to help them learn a vocation and empower them to earn a living for themselves and their families. Talking with Mary’s instructors, I learned that Mary was the top student in the class. She was also helpful to her peers, just as I remember her being in the hospital, helping translate for other Pokot women in the ward who did not speak Swahili. It was thrilling to see Mary on stage, beaming proudly, and to witness the transformation she had undergone in just 10 months.

Mary told me she was excited to go out and use her new skills to become an ambassador for fistula treatment. If you keep this information to yourself, she said, then other people will suffer. She doesn’t want anyone to suffer like she did. Planning to work with church groups and women’s groups, Mary is ready to spread the word about fistula and how treatment is available and free to women in need.

I am proud of Mary. Six months ago, I hung a framed photo of her on my office wall—for me, it was a reminder of the resilience so many women with fistula have in the face of great suffering, and of the transformative power of surgery that I could see through Mary’s stunning smile. I sent WADADIA a copy of the framed photograph to give to Mary as a thank-you gift, but I came to realize that it had not yet been delivered to her. How thrilling it was to give this photo to Mary and witness the striking juxtaposition of her in hospital gown and now graduation gown.

The possibilities for Mary are wide open. Fistula treatment has helped her regain her health and self-esteem, and the skills training has empowered her and allowed her to dream about a brighter future. But it is her inner strength and determination that will allow her to transform her own life. I am rooting for Mary.

 

Lindsey and Mary following the WADADIA graduation ceremony.

Lindsey and Mary following the WADADIA graduation ceremony.

About Kenya

  • Population: 45,010,056
  • Average Births per Woman: 3.54
  • Female Literacy: 84.2%
  • Population Living in Poverty: 43.4% (less than $1.25/day)
Read More

We’re Making a Difference in Kenya

News
Daily Nation: An estimated 3,000 obstetric fistula cases are reported annually, but only a third receive treatment due to lack of specialists

Fistula Foundation Senior Program Director Lindsey Pollaczek and Outreach Manager Habiba Corodhia Mohamed are interviewed for a story about the success of our Action on Fistula program in Kenya, which combines extensive community outreach with surgeon training to find and treat more women suffering from fistula. Lack of specialists hinders treatment of fistula cases An estimated…

News
Reuters: As surgeries triple, Kenya aims to end shame of fistula

Reuters reports on Kenya’s aim to end the shame of obstetric fistula nationwide, tripling treatment surgeries and increasing capacity through opening treatment centers and training surgeons. Read the full article at the link below: As surgeries triple, Kenya aims to end shame of fistula NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kenya’s hopes of ending incontinence caused…

Read Another Woman’s Story

  • Harka Maya

    Nepal

    A mother of two, Harka Maya lives in Sindhuli, Nepal, roughly 80 miles (129 km) from Kathmandu. She developed a fistula last summer, while in labor with her third child. Being from a poor farming family, it was customary for her to deliver at home.

  • Elizabeth

    Madagascar

    Elizabeth is mother to ten children. For nearly a year, she suffered in shame, uncontrollably leaking urine. A doctor misdiagnosed her condition as a urinary tract infection. Without a way to stop the incontinence, Elizabeth went to great lengths to hide her injury.

  • Hauwa

    Nigeria

    Hauwa was 60 years old when she became aware that the fistula she had suffered with for over 40 years could be repaired for free at our partner hospital, Evangel Vesico-Vaginal Fistula Center (EVFC).

  • Selina

    Kenya

    Selina, a traditional birth attendant from remote West Pokot, Kenya, helped eight women from her village get life-changing fistula surgery. And she’s not done yet.

  • Lucie

    Madagascar

    With a tube down her nose to her stomach, Lucie was unable to talk. Her sister, Elysa, relayed this story on her behalf.

  • Ana-Angola

    Ana

    Angola

    Today, Ana is 18 years old, with an enthusiastic outlook and bubbly smile. That wasn’t always the case. Ana was just shy of 16 years old when she became pregnant. Everything went well, until it was time to deliver. Her labor was excruciating, and lasted for days.

  • Fistula Foundation - Maria

    Maria

    Zimbabwe

    Maria is 42 years old. She is HIV-positive and currently on antiretroviral therapy. Maria doesn’t have a permanent place to live – she cannot work because of her incontinence, and has no real income to live on. She survives through the ongoing support of her relatives and friends.

  • Celestine

    Kenya

    In obstructed labor with her sixth child, Celestine was rushed to her local health facility, only to be told she couldn’t have emergency surgery until her family made a down payment. Anxious and afraid, she waited for her husband to return with the money needed.

  • Betty

    Kenya

    Betty developed fistula during her first pregnancy, after laboring at home for seven days. Her baby did not survive. Today, she is healthy once again thanks to free surgery provided through the Action on Fistula program.

  • Pastor Raphael

    Kenya

    The fact that he is blind has never slowed him down, and at 45 years, Pastor Raphael is feeling young and energetic. As a child, Pastor Raphael was unable to finish school as he had tend to the family’s cattle, but he always felt a calling to become a pastor and to serve his community.

  • Domitila

    Domitila

    Angola

    In 2012 Domitila became pregnant with her 9th baby. During her final trimester, she had a severe episode of bleeding. Her family realized this indicated the baby had died, but hoped she would still be able to push it out on her own at home. When nothing happened, they finally took her to the hospital where a hysterectomy was done. After this, she no longer was able to control her urine - she had developed a fistula.

  • Rose

    Tanzania

    Rose developed a fistula after her very first pregnancy, and has been suffering because of it ever since. For over fifty years she struggled, never knowing that treatment was available....until recently when she met Sister Anna, the head nurse of Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center's fistula ward in Moshi.

  • Kabuli, from Afghanistan (photo credit: CURE International)

    Kabuli

    Afghanistan

    Kabuli, from Afghanistan, is the third of four wives. When she developed a fistula after enduring obstructed labor without any emergency medical care, her husband forced her into isolation within his home. Living in shame, Kabuli thought she would be miserable for the rest of her life.

  • Nura

    Chad

    Nura comes from Lai, a region in the south of Chad where she married at age 17. She first became pregnant at 20 and tried to give birth at home, aided only by her family. After 4 days of complicated labor, she was finally taken to the maternity center in Guidari, a nearby village.

  • Sofia - WAHA

    Sofia

    Liberia

    At 16, Sofia lost her baby boy in childbirth and developed a fistula, prompting her husband to leave her. Unaware what her condition was called or that treatment was possible, she became almost completely isolated over the next three years, giving up hope of ever being healed. A radio ad changed her life.

  • Alphonsia

    Tanzania

    Alphonsia’s heart-wrenching story began 27 years ago after her labor failed to progress properly.

  • Felistas

    Kenya

    Felistas developed fistula at the age of 17, after delivering a stillborn baby via Cesarian section. Her husband left her because he could not stand her condition. She suffered alone until learning one day that treatment was available through the Action on Fistula program.

  • Jahanara

    Bangladesh

    Jahanara is just 23 years old. She was in labor for a full day at home before going to a hospital for an emergency C-section. By then, unfortunately, the damage had already been done.