The month of May is dedicated to Women’s Health and is a time set aside to focus on health issues facing women worldwide.
One women’s health issue that we often see onboard our hospital ships is the painful result of injuries and complications developed during a prolonged, obstructed labor — a condition known as obstetric fistula.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean live with this injury which leaves women with incontinence and often leads to other chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation, and deepening poverty.
For Gisele, life with obstetric fistula has been one of shame and heartache. In 1993 Gisele was 28 years old, married, and expecting a baby. She was elated with the anticipation of motherhood and the thought of building a family with her husband. Having children was all Gisele had ever wanted, and her dream was within reach.
Had Gisele been able to deliver her child naturally or receive emergency care when it was clear that a C-section was needed, her story would have a vastly different outcome. But after a painfully obstructed birth in her Congolese village in 1993, Gisele tragically lost her baby. Due to the delivery trauma, she developed an obstetric fistula, also called vesicovaginal fistula (VVF). VVF is a childbirth injury that creates a hole between the birth canal and urinary tract, leaving the mother incontinent.
For 20 years, Gisele lived with the pain and embarrassment of this condition. Managing her incontinence was difficult because she could not escape the odor. Her damp skirt and wet legs reminded her of the child she lost and of the children she would never have. In the night, she had to wake up hourly to change out of her wet clothes. Gisele’s husband, realizing that she would probably never have children, decided to leave.
While the nature of Gisele’s condition was terrible, her physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional burden that came with her husband’s public rejection. Unable to have a child, she grieved her dream of becoming a mother. And, because of the pain of her dissolving marriage, her fear was confirmed — to be a woman unable to have children was to have no value in her community. Gisele shared that since this tragedy, she felt that she had not lived a life — but that she had lived somewhere between life and death, waiting for the day her life would end.
Due to her odor and the stigma around her condition, Gisele withdrew into a life of solitude, but she prayed that someday she might find hope.
That day arrived when she heard of a possible place she might be able to receive surgery — a hospital ship called the Africa Mercy. It was not long before she found herself sitting on a hospital bed onboard, waiting for surgery that would heal the condition that haunted her for over 20 years.
While surgery fixed Gisele physically, it couldn’t make her a mother. However, she found something else onboard the Africa Mercy. She found emotional restoration through the attentive way the doctors and nurses cared for her, and in the relationships she built with the other patients.
Obstetric fistula is typically a condition of isolation. Confined in solitude, Gisele was poisoned by her belief that her life had no value. During her time onboard, she was introduced to many women who shared similar painful journeys. Knowing that she was not the only one to suffer from this pain, the women formed a sisterhood that began healing their spirits.
When it was time for discharge, the hospital threw a going-away party known as the Dress Ceremony. Each patient was presented with a new dress, which she was able to wear home symbolizing her restored life. On the morning of Gisele’s celebration, the women gathered in the ward to do their make-up and fasten their head wraps. The room was filled with chatter, smiles, and an energy like that of a bridal party. Gisele surveyed the room of women getting ready and said, ‘Aujord’hui c’est bon.’ Today is good. After the celebration was over, Gisele walked out of the hospital, down the gangway onto the dock, and took her first step back into society.
Gisele is only one example of the life-changing miracles that occur thanks to the compassionate giving of our partners and the tireless work of our volunteers. And with the highly anticipated first field service of our new ship, the Global Mercy, coming soon, even more people will have the opportunity to find hope where there was once only pain.
The need is great, but hope and mercy are greater!