Fr Kevin Hegarty
FACED with possible political execution by referendum if Enda Kenny becomes Taoiseach, it is not surprising that our senators are on the look out for good news stories. In the Seanad last week, several senators castigated journalists for the proliferation of gloomy reports on our media outlets. The implication was that media should find stories to lift our spirits in a time of recession.
Let’s oblige them. Let’s have a good news story this week.
Dr Lewis Wall is a man with a mission. A middle-aged American, he trained first as an anthropologist. He worked in west Africa and learned Hausa, an African language. His experience convinced him that the world needs doctors more than anthropologists. At the age of 27, he went to medical school where he qualified as a gynaecologist. He is currently attached to Washington University in St Louis. He has had a successful academic career and is the author of several books and articles on his speciality.
Nothing remarkable there. The world is teeming with academics who have won the respect of their peers.
Dr Wall’s particular passion sets him apart in the medical world. His passion is the treatment of obstetrical fistulas.
Teenage women in Africa and Asia suffer from this condition, caused by the experience of childbirth before the pelvises are fully formed. Suffering obstructed labours, having no access to caesarean sections, they endure internal injuries that leave them persistently incontinent.
Reeking of human waste, they are disowned by their husbands and forced to live on the margins of their communities. To echo some words of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, ‘they are things despised and rejected by men, objects of derision to their neighbours’. Lepers of the 21st century, there are over three million of them in the most impoverished countries of the world.
It does not cost mega money to rectify the injury - just €300 dollars per operation.
Dr Wall has devoted much of his spare time to the treatment of sufferers. He has talked ecstatically of the worth of his work.
“There is no more rewarding experience for a surgeon than a successful fistula repair. There are a lot of operations you do to solve a problem - I can take out a uterus that has a tumour in it. But this is life-transforming for everybody who gets it done. It’s astonishing. You take a human being who has been in the abyss of despair and - boom - you have a transformed woman. She has her life back. In Liberia, I saw a woman who had developed a fistula 35 years earlier. It turned out to be a tiny injury; it took twenty minutes to repair it. For want of a 20 minute operation, this woman had lived in a pool of urine for 35 years.”
In 1995, Dr Wall established the World-Wide Fistula Fund. His main aim - the building of a fistula hospital in west Africa. His dream is about to become a reality.
Niger has approved his plan to build a 40 bed hospital, close by is an existing leprosy unit. A funding drive has almost met its target of one million dollars.
The hospital will have a wider brief than the treatment of fistula victims. It will also seek to empower women through education on childbirth, maternal health and micro-finance.
The hospital is one part of a wider vision. Dr Wall has submitted to the US Congress and the White House a proposal to build 40 such hospitals over 12 years at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars, to be financed as an American foreign aid programme.
A lot of money but as Nicholas D Kristof, a US journalist has commented: “Anybody who has seen a fistula patient after surgery, a teenager’s shy radiant smile at something so simple as being able to control her waste - can’t conceive of a better investment.”
And yet maybe not a lot of money compared with what is spent on military activities. Money spent on the alleviation of poverty and its consequences can bring greater stability to the world.
The economist Jeffrey Sachs has written, “Since September 11, 2001, the US launched a war on terrorism but it neglected the deeper causes of global instability. The nearly 500 billion dollars that the US spent this year on the military will never buy lasting peace if the US continues to spend only one thirtieth of that, around 16 billion dollars, to address the poorest of the poor, whose societies are destabalised by extreme poverty.”
Dr Wall’s plan awaits support of the US Congress and the White House. In the spirit of President Obama’s campaign slogan, I hope they can give it their endorsement.