I got the best job of my life from Oprah Winfrey. I know you think I’m just a name dropper, but I’ve never met Oprah. She has no idea I exist. I’m sure of it.
But without Oprah, Fistula Foundation, which I lead, and which has helped tens of thousands of women in Africa and Asia whose bodies have been broken by childbirth receive life-transforming surgery, likely wouldn’t exist.
You see, when Oprah was in our proverbial living rooms practically daily with her blockbuster TV program, she did two shows back in 2004 and 2005 that focused on obstetric fistula and an extraordinarily inspiring fistula surgeon, Dr. Catherine Hamlin.
If you’ve never heard of it, fistula is a childbirth injury, caused by prolonged obstructed labor.
It usually affects a poor woman in a more vulnerable country on her first birth, leaving her incontinent and too often turning the woman into a social outcast and what has been termed a modern-day leper. On its surface, this is not exactly entertainment gold, and yet the shows were winners – a few of Oprah’s best shows ever.
Oprah did what she does so well – help her audience understand the heartbreaking path of another. In this case the lives of a million women in Africa and Asia, destroyed by an ancient scourge that only surgery can cure. Dr. Hamlin’s nearly divine presence transcended the television screen, and Oprah’s viewers contributed over $3 million within weeks of the first broadcast. Oprah personally funded the construction of a new building at Dr. Hamlin’s Ethiopian Hospital. Dr. Hamlin inspired many people, including me, to do what we can to confront fistula and enabled us to raise millions more over the next few years to help fund her life-changing work.
In 2009 we believed we could do more and expand our mission to fight fistula globally. Nearly a decade later we’ve helped dedicated doctors in more than 30 countries treat tens of thousands of women. This was all funded by donors in more than 60 countries providing more than $60 million.
These generous people are moved to help women horribly injured simply for trying to bring a child into the world. They act out of love. There are no bragging rights for supporting surgery to repair vaginas, bladders, and rectums. They give to help women they will never meet get surgery for an injury they’ve never seen, many thinking “there but for the grace of God go I.’’
It’s a great joy and privilege to be at the intersection of this profound life-changing generosity of donors big and small and the dedicated doctors and health workers providing transformative care, people such as Dr. Denis Mukwege in DRC, Dr. Hilary Mabeya in Kenya, and Ms. Edna Adan in Somaliland. Amazingly our small organization now actually provides more help to more women with fistula than any organization in the world; more than the US government and more than all the other nonprofits in the US combined. But I am convinced none of this would have happened without Dr. Hamlin’s inspiration and without Oprah Winfrey.
I often wonder if she even knows what she helped set in motion for some of the world’s most neglected women. Her actions over a decade ago produced a powerful ripple effect – a tsunami of love driven by true compassion that is changing women’s lives every day.
What I know for sure: there’s a growing community of people who believe that being your sister’s keeper is a privilege, not a burden that caring always supersedes cruelty, and that empathy is its own reward.