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Life After Fistula: A Malawi Survivor’s Story


Our Senior Program Manager, Lindsey Pollaczek, is currently traveling throughout Africa, visiting partners in the region. Below she shares the heartfelt story of a fistula survivor she met in Malawi: 

Nearly six months ago, Bridget*, 28,  received fistula repair surgery at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre, Malawi during the UNFPA Malawi outreach fistula repair camp that Direct Relief supported with surgical supplies. While traveling, I was able to meet Bridget and her extended family who live in the rural Mangochi District.

*indicates name has been changed for privacy purposes

Bridget became pregnant with her first child when she was very young – around 13 or 14 years of age. When she went into labor, her family encouraged her to stay at home with a traditional birth attendant. She labored for four days before it was finally decided she should go to the hospital.

Upon arriving, she received a cesarean section. They removed her stillborn baby. Soon after leaving the hospital, she started leaking urine continuously, but didn’t know she had developed an obstetric fistula – a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged and obstructed labor.

Bridget lived with the condition for 13 years. During this difficult time, she had sores on her legs because of the constant wetness. She said she felt like a baby because she was continuously leaking. Moreover, her husband abandoned her.

Bridget felt ashamed and preferred to isolate herself from her family and friends.  When she went to the field to garden she said it was as if someone was pouring water down her legs, which made it nearly impossible for her to do her work. It was a burden she was unsure she would ever overcome.

Fortunately for Bridget, she met a very supportive man during this time who wanted to marry her despite the challenges she faced. She was raised by her aunt and grandmother, and her family stuck by her side, even though she felt ashamed and embarrassed by her condition. Her family was sad she could not come to the mosque because she was unclean and therefore could not participate in religious life so important to their community.

One day, she met an outreach worker who was conducting community meetings to raise awareness about obstetric fistula. She learned about her condition and that help was available. At first, her family was afraid to let her go for treatment, as she would have to travel more than 200 kilometers to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in the big city of Blantyre. But eventually, they encouraged her to try her luck and see if she could get help.

Bridget received surgery repairing the physical wounds to stop the leaking in May 2013 at QECH. While there, she was joined by over 60 women who also received treatment. She had no idea that so many other women also suffered from this condition. Together, they made handicrafts while on the ward, and supported each other during their two week post-operative stay.

Nearly six months later, back at home, Bridget is happy and dry. She says she no longer has pain from the sores on her legs and she is able to freely socialize with her friends and family. She is now able to go to the mosque and this year – for the first time in over a decade – was able participate in the observance of Ramadan, a very important holiday for her family and community.

Her husband sits beside her and says she is doing much better and he feels that she is much improved. When she first came back after her operation, her family couldn’t believe she was cured after so many years living with the condition. They kept checking where she sat to see if it was dry until they really did believe she was better. They all gather around Bridget to express their support, and to offer their gratitude that this service was available her, as well as to others that may suffer.

In order for Bridget and other women like her to receive fistula repair, hospitals must have the necessary medicines and surgical supplies. Direct Relief is dedicated to providing the necessary supplies to QECH and other hospitals providing fistula treatment in Malawi.

While the supplies are not sophisticated or high tech, they are critical for the operation and post-operative care. Ms. Grace Hiwa, coordinator of UNFPA Malawi’s fistula program, says that the donation of supplies from Direct Relief that arrived prior to the camp last May made it possible for Bridget and the other women to get treatment. This was because there was a major shortage of the appropriate size Foley catheter—an essential item for fistula repair surgery—which could not be found anywhere in hospitals and private pharmacies through the entire country. Ms. Hiwa emphasized that the Direct Relief donation came at a critical time and allowed the camp and treatment for these women to go forward.

Judging from the large number of women that turn out at every UNFPA-supported fistula camp and the long waiting list that remains, there is a serious need to continue and accelerate availability of fistula repair services in Malawi. As long as there is a need, Direct Relief is committed to providing the medical and surgical supplies critical to support this life-transforming care.

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