By Elisa Gambino
In the spring of 2013, my husband, Neal Broffman, and I visited Gondar University Hospital in Ethiopia with partners Fistula Foundation and Johnson & Johnson. We interviewed and filmed the work that they are supporting to treat women suffering from obstetric fistula, an injury caused by prolonged, obstructed labor that renders a woman incontinent until she can access reparative surgery. This is an injury that can ruin a woman’s life. The constant smell from her incontinence too often prompts her husband to leave or community to abandon her, relegating her to a life of shame and isolation – for doing nothing more than try to bring a child into this world. Woman who are poor cannot access skilled care because they live in remote areas or they don’t know that they should go to a clinic to deliver.
The first fistula patient I met was Workinesh, who was at the hospital to receive surgery to repair her fistula. Workinesh was with her daughter, who was my daughter Sofia’s age at the time. As I learned her story, I distinctly remember thinking, “Here is a mother with a daughter who is my daughter’s age, and what she’s going through is just so far removed from my life and the things I have to think about.” Workinesh wanted the exact same things for her daughter that I wanted for Sofia.
This trip to Ethiopia was the first time I had met with obstetric fistula patients. The visit moved me so deeply that I shared much of what I saw and learned with my daughter, Sofia. She was equally surprised and saddened by what she learned, but she was also inspired to act, and decided to do something to help. She wrote a letter to Fistula Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses specifically on treating this devastating injury: “Hearing their experiences filming at three hospitals in Ethiopia and Tanzania and learning about the hardships women with this condition face inspired me to raise awareness. I’m a junior at an all-girls middle and high school in Atlanta. Since obstetric fistula affects women and girls, what better place to start talking about it than at my school?”
And then my amazing daughter got to work. She started talking with teachers, friends and fellow students, and spread the word about obstetric fistula and the women whose lives are destroyed by this terrible injury. Donations began to trickle in, but Sofia soon realized that she could raise more money faster by asking people for larger donations. So, on a December weekend just ahead of Christmas, Sofia enlisted Neal’s and my help in baking our favorite family recipe for cranberry cakes. A local florist donated cellophane wrapping and our neighbor donated beautiful bows to make the cakes look festive. Sofia offered the cakes in exchange for a donation of $25 or more – and the donations started flowing! By the end of the year, Sofia had raised over $500!
She managed this project completely, but we made the cakes together, we brainstormed together. And we’ve been working together again this spring to brainstorm and raise funds in order to meet her goal of raising enough funds to support the cost of fistula surgery for three women.
Just a few weeks ago, I was able to return to Ethiopia, where I was able to speak with Workinesh by telephone. She is doing well, her daughter is in school and she sounded strong and full of energy – exactly how I remembered her. I told Workinesh that I had shared her story with my daughter, and I told her how proud I was that Sofia was working to help heal other women who were suffering. She was pleased.
My daughter inspires me every day by her thoughtfulness and by the way she approaches everything she does with a full, kind heart. Any mother of a teenage daughter will probably agree that moms and daughters do not often share common goals at this point in life, so I cherish every moment we’ve spent together working side by side to help mothers who live half a world away. In a way, this project is the best Mother’s Day gift I could have asked for.
Sofia is planning to continue her efforts until she meets her goal of raising enough money for three surgeries. And her advice to any of you, who might be thinking about following in her footsteps? “Do it! You’re helping people, why wouldn’t you do that?”
Why not, indeed.
Elisa Gambino is a mother, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who is based in Atlanta.