Mamitu Gashe – The illiterate surgeon

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Even as the world acknowledges and celebrates only seven wonders, there are apparently more wonders that happen every day.

The story of how 72-year-old Mamitu Gashe became a world-renowned surgeon without any formal or basic education is a wonder, many will find hard to believe.

Mamitu Gashe, who recently made it to the BBC’s top 100 women in the world is a top surgeon who specialises in fixing obstetric fistulas in Ethiopia.

Mamitu was a victim of fistula herself and says her success with all patients stems from the fact that she can greatly relate to what they are going through.

‘I grew up in a village. I had not seen a hospital before or even good roads, I had not seen anything about a city before. At the age of 14, I was married to my husband, whom I had been betrothed to since childhood. My husband was 25 years old and he was a kind, sweet and loving man. He gave me anything and everything I wanted and did everything to make me happy.

Mamitu Gashe operating on a patient

We were a happy couple. At 16, I got pregnant and with that I felt our joy was going to be complete, since we will have a complete family. Everything was fine until I went into labour. On the first day, we all thought it was normal labour pains so we paid no heed to it. But after four days of pain and contractions with no birth, they realised my baby had died.

It took the help of a local doctor to help get my baby out of my womb. I was shattered and devastated, but also relieved because I thought the pain was going to end. But I was wrong, it only got worse and worse. For 15 days, I was in constant pain and I also realised I had no control over my bladder or my poop. I could not control when I to urinate or otherwise, so a special bed was made for me with a hold in it, to accommodate this new condition.’

Mamitu had developed a fistula and she describes her condition as very embarrassing and half the time she felt like committing suicide to end it all, but her mum always prevented her.

Gashe had a sister in the city so she decided to go live with her in the hopes of finding treatment to her ailment out there.

She was not wrong. Her sister’s godmother worked in a hospital which immediately admitted Mamitu and started treatment on her, but she was transferred to another hospital after news made rounds that the Hamlins were specialists in treating her condition.

Mamitu and Catherine Hamin

‘Immediately I got to the Hamlin’s hospital, I was received very warmly. I was very weak from all the pain, so they treated me until I was strong enough for surgery and then they had the repair surgery for me. My entire recovery took about 2 years.’

After her recovery, Mamitu Gashe was so grateful for what had been done for her, hence she decided to stay on at the hospital, helping to take care of other fistula patients.

‘I started by laying the beds and folding the sheets in the hospital. With time, Dr Hamlin – whom many of us called daddy- started to teach me things about treating the patients. He mentioned to me that he was building a new hospital in another place and I could come work with him if I was interested.

With time, daddy started to invite me into the operating room with him. He would do most of the surgery but still give me little bits of responsibilities in there to do. We continue to do this until he finally handed over to me and I was doing full fistula repairs alone.’

Mamitu Gashe says she felt very fulfilled and accomplished whenever she could help a woman out of her misery and pain. ‘I was once like them, so I know exactly what they are going through and it makes very happy when I am able to help them.’

Mamitu’s international recognition came, when a team from the UK Royal College (RCS) visited the hospital she was working in (Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital) with the Hamlins (Catherine and Reginald) and watched her perform a very difficult repair on a patient.

In 2007, the President of the RCS called Gashe the forerunner of the non-medically qualified practitioner and with this, she was regarded as the institution’s leading fistula repair surgeon.

Before long Mamitu Gashe rose to the top in the country and currently trains new post-graduate doctors.

Dr Reginald Hamlin passed on a few years back, but Mamitu, who never remarried or had any children, has maintained a mother-daughter relationship with Catherine Hamlin and still spends most of her days with her.

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