“It’s powerful to see how generous they are in their love and affection for each other.”
Michelle is Head of Anaesthesia on the MV Africa Mercy, the largest floating hospital NGO in the world. She is currently docked in Congo.
Are women at a disadvantage when it comes to access to surgery in low-resource countries?
Any money usually goes to the men, to the children; women are the neglected person in the family unit, often the poorest of the poor.
But with a lot of women’s health issues – uterine prolapse, obstetric fistula – there really is no other alternative to surgery. So it’s important that they get access to surgical care, that it’s safe – and that it’s effective. Obstetric fistula has a high rate of cure if you get it right first time, dropping dramatically with each further attempt.
Is it hard not to get emotionally involved in these cases?
It’s certainly a very moving surgery to be part of. These women have been ostracized completely from society – very often they’re barred from home, left in an outhouse and someone brings them food. Corrective surgery restores their dignity and their place in society. They can socialize, take a bus, go to market. They can finally get rid of the stench of stale urine.
How do the women respond to this second dramatic change in circumstances?
We try to have a ceremony on the ship for the ladies who have had successful fistula surgery, as a way of showing that they are valued, appreciated. We give them a new dress, symbolizing a new start. There’s applause and dancing – it’s incredibly moving, after the many years of hardship they’ve suffered.
And it’s powerful to see how generous they are in their love and affection for each other. The women who haven’t had successful surgeries nearly always participate. They know how much it means, and their hope of that is so great that they are still willing to rejoice.
What’s the reality for surgery on the mainland, when you leave the ship’s hospital?
It’s not only about access to surgery – people also have to survive their operation, and there are some very practical problems. Many hospitals don’t have access to clean running water or electricity to sterilize the equipment. They don’t have antibiotics, everything disposable is reused.
Everything compromises the safety of surgical care, even the unreliable lighting – it’s very difficult to do a good repair when you can’t really see what you’re doing.
What does this mean for someone with a surgically-treatable condition?
It means they endure with pain, exhaustion, incontinence. For the woman particularly there are economic and social implications – if her husband takes another wife he may reject the infants from the first wife. If she takes the children she may not have the means to look after them.
There’s a lot of social stigma attached to disability, but if we turn a mirror back on ourselves we can see that we take a similar view in the west – we just hide it better.