People often ask me why Johnson & Johnson is so deeply engaged with obstetric fistula. My answer is that the health and well-being of moms and babies is the essence of our company, and we would therefore care for the women who suffer personal tragedy in giving birth. I never fail to speak of Our Credo which charges us to “support good works and charities.” While this is all true, the whole story of our involvement with obstetric fistula is a great deal more personal than that. It started because one man earnestly wanted to do one good thing. While Johnson & Johnson’s operating companies have supported those with obstetric fistula for two decades, it wasn't until Axel Velden, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive who once had charge of the company’s export business, contacted me that our commitment at the corporate level began. I had never met Axel, but he was well known and universally respected, so when he called me one busy spring morning, I interrupted my task to listen. Axel told me that he’d learned of a surplus of incontinence pads that a subsidiary was preparing to destroy. “Conrad, you can’t let the pads be destroyed. You have to get them to this hospital in Ethiopia. Have you ever heard of fistula?” I had barely heard of obstetric fistula, an all-too common outcome in parts of the world where access to medical care is limited. In the process of childbirth, labor becomes obstructed, causing a hole in the birth canal. The baby usually dies, and the woman, mourning her child, must also deal with a physical injury that causes her to leak urine and fecal matter uncontrollably. She is usually shunned by her husband and family. When you are sitting in an office in New Jersey, you tend to think of incontinence products as a convenience, but Axel’s tone of voice made the issue sound more like lives were at stake. He described the need and the sterling work being done by the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital (AAFH) to help women in this situation. I was easily persuaded. Over the next few months I secured the incontinence pads and found that a long time partner in medical relief, Direct Relief International, had experience with donations to Ethiopia and that their CEO, Thomas Tighe had genuine enthusiasm for making an enduring commitment to both AAFH and the issue of obstetric fistula. As I began to interact with the AAFH and its co-founder, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, I learned more and more about the problems of maternal care in rural settings. Over the next two years we were able to engage far beyond the original product donation. With guidance from experts in the field we provided funds for surgeon training and community outreach, other essential products like sutures and gloves, and support for the Hamlin College of Midwifery which may one day make fistula as rare in Ethiopia as it is in the United States. I really don’t recall what made me decide to circle back to Axel after all that time had passed. I always like to let people know the outcome of things, but this was a task that had no particular deadline so I really can’t say what prompted me. Nevertheless, I took a moment to quickly compose an email to Axel to say thank you and to let him know that not only had the pads been donated, but higher goals to prevent and treat obstetric fistula had been set. A few weeks later, I received a reply, not from Axel, but rather from his daughter. Sadly, Axel had passed away just a day or two before my email arrived. Their family read the message I sent at his funeral. She said that Axel’s family took some comfort in knowing Axel’s ideals still mattered to the company where he had spent most of his career. Axel lived Our Credo and I remain grateful for his call on that busy day. I also am glad to work at a company where even in retirement, service doesn't end. It has been a decade since that fateful call, and since that time, the Company’s work to prevent and treat obstetric fistula has grown beyond anything Axel or I could have dreamed. I am proud to stand with the United Nations in honoring today as the first “International Day to End Obstetric Fistula.” Here are a few ways you can help make a difference the lives of these women:
- Join the Half the Sky movement and play the Half the Sky Facebook game to help raise funds for women and girls. Johnson & Johnson is supporting donations to the Fistula Foundation as part of the game.
- Connect with the Fistula Foundation online
- Learn more about Obstetric Fistula and our partners’ work here.
Conrad Person is Director, Corporate Contributions, a position he assumed in 1998. Conrad’s responsibilities include overseeing Johnson & Johnson’s philanthropy portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an emphasis saving and improving lives of women and children; building health care capacity, primarily through education; and preventing diseases and reducing stigma associated with diseases. He has developed and implemented programs for health care capacity improvement around the world.