The Amazing 90-Year-Old Surgeon


What would motivate a 96-year-old Australian-born surgeon to keep working 30 years after she should have retired?


That question came to mind after reading about Catherine Hamlin, the amazing Australian woman who continued performing surgeries in Ethiopia in her ninth decade of life.


Clues emerge from statements she gave in interviews. When asked about the type of surgery that was her specialty, obstetric fistulae, Catherine said she never forgot the first fistula patient she and husband Reginald encountered. She also said that as an ordinary believer in Jesus, she was just doing the job God gave her to do.


Catherine and husband Reginald, a dedicated Christian couple, sought to make a difference in the world as an expression of their faith. After working in Sydney, Hong Kong, and London, they answered an ad asking for someone to set up a school of midwifery in Ethiopia.


The Hamlins opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, bringing hope into the lives of women in the country where the maternal death rate was one of the highest in Africa. Women were treated free of charge, thanks to charitable donations and sometimes money from the Hamlins’ own pockets. The couple opened training centers for midwives so graduates could go to outlying villages which lacked medical personnel.


Obstetric fistulae is a common birth injury that occurs when women lack access to doctors and hospitals that perform caesarean section deliveries. When the baby is too large, or in a breech position, or tangled in the umbilical cord, the woman must continue in painful labor for days until the baby dies, shrinks, and is expelled. The results are degrading. The mother’s bladder and other internal organs are damaged, causing uncontrolled urine leakage, and sometimes fecal leakage also.


She described their first patient in Ethiopia. “We were touched and appalled by the sadness of our first fistula patient: a beautiful young woman in urine-soaked ragged clothes, sitting alone in our outpatients department away from the other waiting patients. We knew she was more in need than any of the others. She had been through a long labour of five days with only the village women to help.”


“Women with this condition are completely ostracized from society, their husband leaves them, they have no friends because of the smell of urine or faecal (Australian spelling) matter that leaks,” Hamlin explained.


Both Reginald and Catherine knew these suffering women needed more than just an operation. Their philosophy was to “treat the whole patient with love and tender care, literacy and [life skills] classes, a brand-new dress and money to travel home.” Catherine said, “We don’t just treat the hole in the bladder.”


Some women walked hundreds of miles for treatment at the pleasant, clean hospital. One woman even begged bus fare for seven years before saving enough for the trip.


Together, husband and wife operated on over 60,000 women. Treating them free of charge required the Hamlins to depend on charity donations to keep the hospital running. One famous television host in the U.S. personally donated $450,000, while her viewers further donated three million dollars.


Nominated for a Nobel prize twice, this dedicated female doctor became an honorary Ethiopian citizen in 2012. Numerous honors, awards and medals came her way, yet she never lost sight of the total needs of the precious Ethiopian women who deserved rehabilitation and dignity in every way.


Continuing to work until her death, Catherine Hamlin passed to her eternal reward in her home in March of 2020, at age 96.


What about you? Any thoughts on this amazing surgeon? Or on aging?

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