Originally appeard in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review on February 27, 2017.
There are some moments you just never forget.
Standing in a small, shadowy room in the middle of a health clinic in rural Ethiopia, listening to incredible women pour out their souls, I had one of those moments.
These stories, centred around a uterine health condition, were horrifying and heart wrenching and inspiring all at once.
The women at the clinic – recipients of a surgery to correct a prolapsed uterus – were so gracious and open. They made themselves vulnerable and shared personal details about their lives, despite Ethiopia’s culture of privacy.
Many lived for years with extreme discomfort. The husband of one woman threatened to leave her if she refused to have sex with him – despite the pain her condition was causing.
The surgery, done by Dr. Mark Karnes at the Soddo Christian Hospital, is quite literally life changing.
“Before the operation, I was taking care of my family, but there was a lot of shame because my smelling was so much. It was not good. Even the wound was bleeding. My life was suffering,” said Amarach, who lived with a severely prolapsed uterus for over a year.
Most women with prolapsed uteruses were severely depressed and some were ignored or shunned by their communities. It’s common to stay away from friends and family and suffer in silence.
“I was hiding myself – I didn’t tell anybody,” said Turngo, a 50-year-old woman from the Soddo region. Most ladies wouldn’t even tell their spouse or children about the problem, despite daily pain and a terrible smell.
“My fear was not being able to be with people ever again,” said Sulded, from a rural area near Bucama, Ethiopia. “I was hopeless and I was ashamed.”
Amarach didn’t have a single person to talk to about her pain.
And the nasty odour was a common symptom among the women who have dealt with a prolapsed uterus. In severe cases, the uterus can actually slip out of the body. One woman told the doctor that her uterus hit the floor when she would squat to use the bathroom. In rural Ethiopia, the toilet is often a hole in the ground.
“I was not able to sit with people, even to greet them. The smelling filled all my body. I was full of shame. With the smell, how can I go on?” Turngo said.
She lived that bleak reality for four years. She was in so much pain that she had to get down on all fours to cook because she couldn’t sit or stand.
Another woman was so distraught that she contemplated taking her own life.
It’s a devastating issue, but there are solutions. Karnes operates on dozens of women every year. The surgery comes at a cost of $325, a price tag that’s completely beyond possibility for most Ethiopian families.
“(I had) nothing, not even one cent, one birr,” Amarach said.
Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia has so far funded 83 of those surgeries. To say the recipients are grateful is a dramatic understatement.
The most consistent and noticeable change is relief from the bad odour. Women reported smelling “like perfume" post-surgery.
“I can walk, I can even run. I can stand, I can sit. My body, I can control. It is my own,” said Turngo.
“Everything is new. This life is new.”
- Megan Stacey