For those who do not know what obstetrical fistula is, it is an injury that occurs during childbirth where no emergency obstetrical care is available. It happens more often in younger women who physically are not developed enough especially with a full-term infant. During the prolonged labor, a hole develops in the birth canal which creates a passage through urine and/or feces can leak. It is a devastating injury as these women leak; they smell, and they are often cut off from their family and friends, even abandoned by their husbands. To think that these women go from the joyous expectation of giving life and then become outcasts – it is heart-wrenching to hear their stories.
The second full day I was on the Africa Mercy, I was getting ready to start a case, when I heard singing. Now on the ship, the hospital is on Deck 3, and I was sure that I heard it from the side of the patient wards. “That’s the OBF ladies,” said one of my co-workers. The OBF ladies? I knew what the acronym stood for – obstetrical fistula, but why were they singing? “They walk the hallways and sing every Friday. I couldn’t understand the words, but the singing was beautiful. I was humbled by their singing because these women have already been through so much, and yet their response was to sing. My own response in the face of a huge problem is more along the lines of “Why me?” and not singing.
In spite of all their pain, the women on B ward on Mercy Ships develop a sisterhood of their own. They fix each other’s hair, sing songs and even redecorate their ward. One woman who had certainly seen her share of pain, actually volunteered to adopt one of the youngest OBF patients, a fourteen year-old whose own physical ailment was magnified by the fact that she had been sexually abused by a relative who then “shared” her with others, getting her pregnant in the process. This other patient was so moved that she told her that she had a new family, one that understood her in ways that she had never experienced.
I was privileged to attend the OBF dress ceremony, which is an event that the people of the Africa Mercy produce for these women as they prepare to return home. Each woman is given a new dress and a new hat as well as a gift bag. It is held outdoors,
and each woman is given the opportunity to speak about her testimony. Each one got up and started their talk with, “Hallelujah” and then proceeded to tell their stories. Many of them told of being abandoned, rejected and being treated like garbage. They would then thank Mercy Ships, the doctors and nurses, but many also thanked the chaplains, their drivers and so on. However, the one person they all thanked was the cook. When the cook was first mentioned, I thought, “How sweet,” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these women, in spite of all their pain and difficulties, were taking the time to thank the person we often overlook. They were not treated to gourmet meals on fancy tablecloths – this was basic food served cafeteria style, but the cook got the recognition from these thankful ladies.
Going on a medical mission often gives one a new perspective and is frequently humbling as well. It is my hope that when you read this, will take a page from the OBF ladies and when faced with an insurmountable difficulty, make a joyful noise to the Lord, and while you are at it, don’t forget to thank the cook!