Today marks the first anniversary of the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, announced last year by the United Nations. And while there are many “days” to help the global health and development communities raise awareness about pressing challenges, fistula holds a special significance.
Two decades ago, a surgeon in Ethiopia, Dr. Catherine Hamlin, made an appeal for absorbable sutures for use in surgeries to repair obstetric fistula, a debilitating childbirth injury that causes uncontrollable leaking of feces or urine. Women suffering from fistula are often shunned by their husbands and communities, and forced to live in isolation.
Sheila Rinning, who worked in the export department in Edinburgh, Scotland for Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, responded to Dr. Hamlin’s call. Little did she know that this would be the beginning of a partnership that has lasted nearly two decades, and led to thousands of life-saving surgeries for women in need.
Following Dr. Hamlin’s appeal, Sheila devoted time each month to prepare four separate packages containing absorbable and silk sutures for use in fistula surgeries. Why separate? The postal service couldn’t reliably deliver the package to their destination in Ethiopia – so four packages were sent separately, with the hope that at least one would make it to the destination in Addis Ababa. The mutual affection of the relationship that developed led to many letters of appreciation and a tearful first meeting in Edinburgh when after nearly a decade, Dr. Hamlin was made an Honarary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Since the time of Dr. Hamlin’s original request, Ethicon has continued its commitment to making fistula treatment accessible to women, increasing the level of its donations to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital (which is also affectionately called the Hamlin Hospital) and to many other leading fistula programs in Africa.
Recognizing the importance of this work and the great need that exists to support these surgeries, Ethicon Global Surgery has pledged to provide sutures to treat 15,000 women annually for three years, totaling 45,000 women. Multiple partner organizations are receiving the donated sutures. Supplies are precious and these sutures, specifically designed for surgeries to repair the pelvic floor, are an invaluable commodity. In the hands of a highly trained surgeon, they can transform the life of a woman, who might otherwise live in isolation and shame.
Ethicon’s commitment to fistula has endured – as has the commitment of our parent company, Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson also has a long history of partnering with a range of organizations to train skilled birth attendants who can stop fistula from happening in the first place, and to increase the number of surgeons who are trained to perform this highly skilled procedure.
Our programs to connect women to fistula surgery may have started with humble beginnings, but our continued work to treat women who suffer from this debilitating childbirth injury has endured – and made a real difference to thousands of women worldwide.
Denis Robson is Director of African Affairs for Johnson & Johnson Medical UK. His responsibilities include overseeing Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Social Responsibility program in Africa, with an emphasis on Health Workforce Capacity Building. Robson began his career at Johnson & Johnson in 1974, and has held various positions in sales and business management in Africa and the Middle East. Prior to his current role in Corporate Contributions he held the position of General Manager of the Medical Device Export business from 1997 to 2008. .content