Fistula Program Graduates 35 Survivors, Emotional ceremony leaves many in tears

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The Fistula Rehabilitation and Reintegration Center at Phebe, Bong County, recently graduated 35 survivors from its skills training program at a touching ceremony held at the Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing.

The graduates burst into tears as they sang a special chorus explaining the pain, denial, stigma, embarrassments and neglect by spouses, family and friends, which they endured prior to the corrective surgeries and rehabilitation they underwent.

Platform guests and many in the audience could also be seen fighting back tears or sobbing as survivors emotionally sang their lyrics.

The graduates are all survivors of obstetric fistula, a condition that is caused by complications during child birth leaving victims to involuntarily discharge bodily wastes including urine and feces.

“Lack of funding and the Ebola crisis have slowed our activities,” said Dr. John Mulbah, Fistula Project Coordinator, in his review of their 2016 program.

This statement was echoed by the Head Trainer, Madam Sao M. Johnson-Draper, who underscored the need to expand the rehabilitation facilities at the Phebe Hospital and School of Nursing in order to accommodate as many fistula survivors as possible.

Mrs. Draper spoke of a backlog of cases around the country in dire need of surgery and rehabilitation, but regrettably noted that most of them may not be admitted due to limited capacity.

“At the moment, the program has only 30 beds, so we cannot take in more than that number despite the numerous calls we receive from around the country from women needing surgery and rehabilitation,” she said.

The program’s lead trainer then made a passionate plea to former Health Minister Dr. Walter Gwenigale under whose administration the program was conceived, to intercede on their behalf to attract more support.

Dr. Gwenigale responded that although he was no longer in authority he would help the project seek support for additional beds based on the persistent pleas. He made a cash donation of US$200 to the project to purchase additional beds.

He then pleaded with graduates and the audience to serve as goodwill ambassadors in wooing more support to the project, adding, “We look forward to seeing a fistula free Liberia.”

For his part, Assistant Health Minister and Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Sampson Azoaquoi, thanked the Phebe Hospital for its involvement in the Fistula Project, hinting that the condition affecting child-bearing mothers is a strong pointer that something is wrong with the country’s health system.

Dr. Azoaquoi lamented the increasing incidence of maternal deaths in Liberia which currently stands at 1,072 per 100,000 live births.

According to him, most health care centers around the country are not manned by trained practitioners, a problem he said health authorities have gone to the drawing board to address.

The keynote address was delivered by the Chief of Medical Staff at the Phebe Hospital, Dr. Kormassah Tennih, who pointed out the conflict between entrenched traditional practices in child-bearing and medical care which sometimes leads to women running into complications during child birth.

She named one as the belief in many cultural settings that attending to women in labor is strictly a female business. “This often prevents women in labor from seeking early medical attention,” Dr. Tennih added.

Also making comments at the ceremony was the UNFPA Fistula Focal Person, Mrs. Esther Lincoln who charged survivors to help educate other women and prevent them from passing through the terrible experiences they endured.

She also urged them to utilize health facilities and plan their families in order to avert recurrence of the condition.

She said the Fistula Project depends on survivors to serve as goodwill ambassadors in their respective communities.

Each of the survivors was given a starter kit appropriate for her particular vocation and US$100 to help start life anew following their just completed vocational training in cosmetology, pastry making, home economics, soap making and tailoring.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the main funder of the program, which has treated and rehabilitated about 1,500 and 350 fistula survivors respectively since its inception in 2008.

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