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Vale Dr Catherine Hamlin



On Wednesday 18 March 2020 Dr Catherine Hamlin passed away in Ethiopia. Dr Hamlin worked for more than half a century to eradicate obstetric fistula, an internal injury caused during childbirth which can leave a woman suffering physically, emotionally and often resulting in the woman being ostracised by her community. In Western countries, obstetric fistulas rarely occur because there is access to effective maternal healthcare. In countries like Ethiopia, more than 70% of births take place without a doctor or nurse present and more than 3000 fistulas occur each year. Dr Hamlin has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has received numerous international awards and acknowledgements for her dedication and pioneering work. She was the NSW Senior Australian of the Year for 2018.

In 2012 for the inaugural Pamela Nutt Address, Dr Burgis invited Dr Hamlin to speak to senior students about her work. The 2012 School Captain Jessey Blake was on stage with Dr Hamlin at the event and took a moment to share the impact Dr Hamlin's words had upon her future:

Dear Philippa

So good to hear from you, particularly about this: and thank you so much for including that photo - that’s me with the fringe sitting behind Dr Hamlin as she spoke (though I remember it so well, and it's not something I’ll never forget - if you have any other photos from this event I’d love to see them)!

I decided I would pursue medicine in 2011 (Year 11) thinking it would be the perfect balance between the sciences and problem solving that I love, and working with people every day. Not knowing many doctors, this choice was on somewhat of a whim, and I wasn’t entirely sure what a career in medicine would look like. In a wonderful twist of fate, Dr Burgis had arranged the inaugural Pamela Nutt address, and Dr Catherine Hamlin was our guest of honour.

As Catherine spoke, it was clear she was so fulfilled by her life's direction. Each challenge that she faced she overcame with grace, grit, and empathy; and kept compassion at the forefront of her actions. Selfless priorities, family and faith guided her; and her education gave her the tools to help the most vulnerable women on Earth. She showed leadership in not only pioneering fistula surgery in Ethiopia, but through recognising the importance and value of culturally-based teaching of birthing providers to help prevent this devastating complication. She created opportunities for these otherwise ostracised women to not only improve their health outcomes, but their education and skills, and therefore their lives. There are few people who can say they have had such a profound impact on so many lives globally, and to hear from Dr Hamlin herself was such an incredible opportunity.

Following her address, I was so inspired and so sure with what I wanted to do in life. In fact, my career goal in my graduating yearbook was “to become an obstetrician so inspiring that children everywhere are named after me - ‘Jessey’ for girls, ‘Blake’ for boys”. I’ve now gone on to pursue a career in obstetrics and gynaecology, regularly donate to the Hamlin Fistula Foundation, and one day hope to be involved in humanitarian work where it is needed most.

Dr Hamlin lived an extraordinary life in every sense of the phrase: a gracious woman who broke boundaries as a leader, a humanitarian, an obstetrician/gynaecologist, and an inspiration to all. Whether it be a specific inspiration for career affirmation as it was for me, or the general principles of humility, compassion, and a strong desire to help others, Dr Hamlin’s life is one that we can all reflect on, aspire to, and learn from.

When I read the sad news that she had passed away last week, this talk was the first thing that came to mind, and I was raving to everyone at work about how lucky I was to have met her and heard her speak back in 2012. Her memory and purpose will live on in through the lives of women she has helped to treat, the doctors and midwives she has trained and inspired, and the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation. Though she has passed away, there is no doubt the world is a far better place because she was in it.

Vale Dr Hamlin, may she rest in peace.