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

Read Another Woman’s Story

  • Fistula Foundation - Lia

    Lia

    Angola

    Lia arrived at CEML with great misgivings - she had sought help at many places for her fistula but was given no hope. A friend told her that she might find help at CEML and urged her to go, which she eventually did. She told staff there that she sat on some rocks nearby, cried and repeated “God help me” over and over before coming through the doors.

  • 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.

  • Lida

    Afghanistan

    Lida gave birth to her first and only child 12 years ago. Sadly, the baby died shortly after it was born. Not only that, but Lida developed a fistula during the difficult delivery and started leaking urine constantly from that day.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Rasoanirina

    Madagascar

    Extremely shy, and embarrassed by her condition, Rasoanirina stopped going to school.

  • Solange

    Madagascar

    Solange spent the majority of her teenage years suffering from obstetric fistula.

  • Yvonne

    Zambia

    After suffering from obstetric fistula for 17 years, Yvonne boarded a bus that would take her to treatment. She was hopeful that on her return ride, she would be traveling in a dry dress for the first time in nearly two decades.

  • Mwajuma

    Kenya

    Mwajuma developed a fistula while in labor with her seventh child. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before she met Mariam, who helped her get free treatment through our Action on Fistula program in Kenya. With her health restored, Mwajuma now has plans to start a new business so she can help support her family.

  • 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.

  • Christine

    Kenya

    Despite the efforts of one dedicated doctor who rode over an hour by motorbike late in the evening to help save the life of Christine and her baby, the baby did not survive. Her prolonged labor also resulted in obstetric fistula. Her husband abandoned her because he could not stand the smell of her incontinence, but her brothers defied cultural tradition and insisted she and her five children live with them. Then, a radio advertisement changed her life.

  • Action on Fistula - Jane

    Jane and Elizabeth

    Kenya

    After suffering five miscarriages, Jane prepared to deliver her first child. But two days of difficult labor left Jane with an obstetric fistula. At home, she became traumatized by isolation and mistreatment from her husband, who had taken another wife. Her sister, Elizabeth, stepped in.

  • Chepotyeltyel

    Kenya

    Chepotyeltyel is a Pokot woman from a remote, rural area in northwestern Kenya. After suffering with fistula for nearly 50 years, she was finally able to receive free fistula treatment in July 2016.

  • Tovisoa

    Madagascar

    Tovisoa is hopeful as she waits for fistula surgery that could change her life.

  • Sujata

    Nepal

    Sujata lives in Bajura, a very poor and remote mountain district in western Nepal. She lives with her husband, whom she married when she was 16 years old, and his family in a small house shared by 12 people. One year after their wedding, Sujata was looking forward to the birth of her first child. There was no health facility nearby, so when Sujata’s labor entered its eighth day, the family called on the local birth attendant.

  • Marizany

    Madagascar

    At the age of 18, Marizany and her husband looked forward to the arrival of their first child. But labor did not go as planned, and Marizany was left with an obstetric fistula, leaking urine uncontrollably. She suffered from fistula for 28 years.

  • Mildred

    Kenya

    Mildred developed fistula after prolonged, obstructed labor with her second child. She endured two difficult months of life with fistula before receiving treatment through our Action on Fistula program.

  • Felana

    Madagascar

    At the tender age of 15, Felana became pregnant. She suffered a prolonged obstructed labor, and by the time her stillborn baby was delivered, she had developed obstetric fistula.