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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)
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We’re Making a Difference in Kenya

Read Another Woman’s Story

  • Habiba-Niger

    Habiba

    Niger

    Habiba was married at 16 and pregnant with her first child soon thereafter. She began labor at home, as most women do in Niger. After enduring two days of painful, obstructed labor, she was sent in an ox-cart to the nearest hospital. By the time she received a Caesarian section, Habiba had been in labor for four days. Her baby did not survive.

  • Betty

    Zambia

    Betty labored at home for two days before she realized something was terribly wrong with her labor. To reach the nearest hospital, she traveled from her island by boat, someone paddling her there for three hours. Her baby did not survive, and Betty was left with obstetric fistula.

  • 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.

  • Bilkis

    Bangladesh

    Bilkis is just 20 years old. She developed an obstetric fistula during the delivery of her first baby. Bilkis delivered under the guidance of a traditional birth attendant who encouraged her to continue her labor at home despite the fact that she had already been in labor for two days.

  • Everlyn

    Kenya

    Everlyn developed fistula during her second pregnancy. Shunned and stigmatized by her own family, her husband stood by her side until she received successful treatment through the Action on Fistula program.

  • Fatma

    Tanzania

    When 18 year-old Fatma became pregnant, she did not have early and quality access to the healthcare she wanted when she gave birth. Fatma developed a fistula as a result of prolonged labor.

  • Serafina

    Angola

    Serafina is 18 years old and from the Mukubal tribe in southwestern Angola. Married off at a young age and one of several wives, Serafina became pregnant when she was 14. She is very small-boned and was suffering from malnutrition when she came to the hospital, as food is often scarce in that part of the country. As a result of that and other factors, her delivery did not go well.

  • Christiana

    Liberia

    Pregnant at 16, Christiana suffered with fistula for several years before her successful treatment at our partner hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. Now, with the new skills she is learning through a patient rehabilitation program, she hopes to help support her family.

  • Queen

    Kenya

    “When my husband saw the many health issues I had, he despised me, he called me names and always told me in the face that I was more than crippled.” She was left on her own and most of the time starving. She reached at a point that she could not withstand the mistreatment and she went back to her parents. After a few years her parents died. “I walk like a crippled woman, there is nothing that I own on this earth, I don’t have a husband, I don’t have a baby. My life is so empty.” She has said that her deepest desire has been to die a clean woman. But at Gynocare, where she received fistula surgery through the Action on Fistula program, she is happy. Here, she feels loved and valued. She knows she has a family at Gynocare.

  • 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.

  • Justine

    Uganda

    Justine is 37 years old and lives in Bumasiki , a small village in Bugiri District in Uganda. When her labor pains began, she prepared to go to the hospital but didn’t have enough money to get there. She arrived 20 hours later after gathering sufficient funds from friends and neighbors; but by then, she had developed an obstetric fistula.

  • Margaret and Rose

    Kenya

    At the age of 14, Margaret was raped while fetching water at the local stream. She became pregnant as a result, and endured a difficult labor, which resulted in a stillborn baby and an obstetric fistula. An orphan, Margaret had nowhere to go, and nobody to help her through this terrible tragedy – except her sister, Rose.

  • Ndatsaha

    Madagascar

    Ndatsaha developed fistula when she went in to labor with her third child. She sought the services of a traditional birth attendant, as she had with her previous pregnancies, and as most women did in her community. But this time, things were different. The baby did not come, and Ndatsaha labored in excruciating pain for three days.

  • Beatrice-Kenya

    Beatrice

    Kenya

    Beatrice is 17 she lives in Western Kenya. Many women with fistula suffer for years or decades before they are able to access surgical treatment. Fortunately for Beatrice, who was 16 when she developed fistula, it was less than a month before she received treatment at the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya. Beatrice developed fistula after laboring at home for two days in the presence of a traditional birth attendant.

  • Annonciata

    Uganda

    Annonciata is a 56-year old mother and farmer from a small village in Budaka District in Uganda. She had previously given birth to six children without significant complications, but her seventh delivery did not go as planned.

  • Maho

    Madagascar

    At 20 years old, Maho is mother to two healthy children. In June 2016, when giving birth to her third child, her labor went quite differently. She endured an excruciating labor that lasted three days and resulted in a C-section. Her child did not survive, and Maho had begun to leak urine.

  • Naomi

    Tanzania

    Naomi arrived at Tanga Health Center in northeastern Tanzania as a glowing 24 year old expectant mother and businesswoman with a supportive family and a bright future. She returned home with a healthy baby, but also a devastating condition that threatened to diminish that future - obstetric fistula.

  • Beauty

    Zambia

    Beauty developed a fistula five years ago after a very complicated delivery. She told doctors at St. Francis Mission Hospital that she prayed every day for a miracle, never knowing that her leaking was actually caused by a medical condition for which free treatment was available.