For hundreds of thousands of women in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, obstructed childbirth leads to a life of pain and, in many cases, public shame and isolation.
“Obstetric Fistula is a childbirth injury,” says Kate Grant, the chief executive officer of the Fistula Foundation in San Jose, California. “It happens to women who stay in obstructed labor, sometimes for as long as five or seven days.
“The injury actually leaves a woman incontinent,” says Grant. “That’s the bad news.”
For the half-million women now suffering obstetric fistula, surgery can address the physical damage, so the non-profit foundation funds hospitals and doctors in Africa that treat fistula. The foundation supports medical services for obstetric fistula in 19 countries in Africa and South Asia and has funded an estimated 7,000 procedures in the past six years.
“Many times these hospitals not only provide the surgery, but they also do outreach campaigns to try to locate the women to let them know that the injury certainly isn’t their fault, that they’re not cursed, that the injury can be treated, often times with medical care,” says Grant.
Grant praises the hospitals, the doctors and medical staffs and especially the women who suffer the trauma of those births. She calls them all heroes. She says bringing a baby into the world under difficult circumstances can turn what was to be the happiest day of their lives into the tragic loss of a baby and a life-long injury such as fistula.
“By the time they get to a hospital, they’ve gone through so much,” Grant noted.
Grant says in most cases surgery can be performed and the patients return to normal health.
It takes more than a surgeon
“Many times these hospitals not only provide the surgery, but they also do outreach campaigns to try to locate the women to let them know that the injury certainly isn’t their fault. That they’re not cursed. That the injury can be treated, often times with medical care,” says Grant.
The fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder that is caused by prolonged obstructed labor, leaving a woman incontinent; unable to control the flow of her urine or her feces. It most commonly occurs among women in undeveloped countries who give birth without any access to medical help.
“In effect, if she lives in a more rural area, she doesn’t have access to the kind of products we have in the U.S., or a developed country - incontinence pads, and things that would allow someone to lead a normal life,” says Grant.
Because of the leakage and odor, a woman knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know what exactly it is or what to do about it.
“So she knows she has a problem. Sometimes she won’t know that she actually has fistula. She might not be aware of exactly what the injury is, but she will definitely know the symptom which is incontinence,” says Grant.
Without medical intervention, the woman is often abandoned by her husband and banned from the village because of the foul smell that emanates from the woman due to fistula.
“It’s not always the case,” says Grant. “There are some saintly husbands who stay with their wives.”