In the early 1970ís, gynecologists Catherine and Reg Hamlin were trying desperately to accommodate an ever-growing number of patients with childbirth injuries at the Princess Tsehai Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fifteen beds for fistula patients had been crammed into a room designed for four. Because the Hospital was so busy treating emergencies, an elective case such as a fistula repair had little hope of making it to surgery, and the women faced interminable periods of waiting for their turn in the operating room. As the group of "ladies in waiting" grew and grew, Catherine and Reg dreamed of building a hospital for these special patients, who were now facing a waiting list of up to a year. Many hurdles lined up against such a project. Land ownership was nearly impossible for anyone, unthinkable for a foreigner. Governmental support of a new institution, if it ever came, would take years to arrange. The Hamlins waited and they prayed.
One day, the Emperor, Haile Selassie announced his intention to visit the Princess Tsehai Hospital. Although predominately run by the British, the Hospital had a special place in the Emperorís heart, as it was named for his daughter, who had died during labor. Upon hearing the news of Haile Selassieís visit, the patients themselves went into action. Amazingly, there happened to be a woman among the patients who had learned to read and write (a real rarity in Ethiopia at the time). She was duly elected to transcribe a petition describing the plight of the patients wedged into this tiny room, and the thousands of others suffering in silence across the Ethiopian countryside. Enduring a cacophony of helpful suggestions from her 14 roommates, the scribe labored through several editions, and at last the final document was agreed upon.
Another patient was enlisted to deliver the document. The whole group lamented over how to penetrate the tight security surrounding the Emperor. A lowly village girl would never be granted an audience with the most important man in Ethiopia. An unwelcome approach could be met with death if any of the Emperorís many bodyguards misinterpreted her intentions. At last the fateful day came, and a large crowd gathered to greet the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah" and all his entourage. At the last possible moment, the messenger was struck with an idea. She watched as the Emperor, displaying all the great dignity for which he had become so noted, made his way up the walk to the Hospital Entrance. The window into their tiny ward was almost directly above the entrance! Knowing that she would have only a single chance, she waited until Selassie was just beneath the window, then leaned out and hurled the petition down, hoping against hope that it might land near enough the Emperor to be seen.
Those close to the Emperor watched in a mixture of puzzlement and fear as something came flying out the sky and struck Selassie square on the top of the head. The moment froze in time as everyone waited to see how Selassie would respond. He stopped and peered upward, spying a tiny, terrified face in the window. Then he bent down and picked up the missile, carefully unfolded it, and read the petition right there on the stoop of the entrance. He turned to the gaggle of Ministers surrounding him and bellowed "Why was I never told of this? How can I rest while my women suffer so deeply?"
A meeting with Reg and Catherine was hastily arranged, and they left with two things. One was the Emperorís pledge of his full support of any effort to battle this epidemic. The other was the promise of permission to obtain a piece of land. A deeply religious man steeped in the tradition of Ethiopiaís Orthodox Church, Selassie had granted a section of land on the outskirts of the city to a group of refugees of religious persecution. And there among these refugees, with the blessing of Africa's most auspicious Emperor, perched on a steep hillside in a eucalyptus grove, a place of refuge was born.
To date, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital has treated nearly 20,000 women with childbirth injuries.