Celebrating a Milestone: 20,000 Healthy Vaginas

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Did that headline get your attention? If I had said 20,000 healthy women, would you be reading this? (Be honest!)

20,000 women whose bodies have been made whole again through obstetric fistula surgery; and yes, that means 20,000 healthy vaginas that, before surgery, had holes in them - holes left from the simple act of trying to bring a child into the world.

It means 20,000 families and communities now benefit from the contribution of women that, without surgery, would have too often remained marginalized, because untreated fistula leaves women incontinent.

Seven years ago, in the spring of 2009, Fistula Foundation started a journey to confront the profound suffering caused needlessly by untreated obstetric fistula that devastates the lives of at least a million women in Africa and Asia. This month we treated our 20,000th woman. Picture Madison Square Garden packed with smiling women - 20,000 lives changed forever, as opposed to Knicks fans - and you get what a big deal this is. In early 2009, this result was far from certain.

The world economy reeled from the Great Recession, the biggest financial downturn in 80 years. Most nonprofits were struggling to run in place, with decreased donations a result of the financial implosion. Doubling down, we elected to try to tackle fistula globally, moving from our previous narrow focus on the country of Ethiopia. Some people thought we were nuts, but we believed women needed help, doctors needed support, and we hoped our donors would “lean in.”

In our first meeting in spring 2009 with a potential new partner, Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was quickly clear that the recession had already hurt Mukwege’s hospital. He’d had to lay off doctors and nurses because a big European donor had cut off funding with no notice, maddening for a man doing heroic work to heal women in this war torn region. He needed money to rehire staff. We knew we could help and, within days, he had the funds he needed to rehire staff and help more women.

Fast forward seven years and we’ve created similar partnerships in 31 countries, supporting treatment at more than 140 sites. We’ve worked with countless dedicated doctors like Mukwege, too many to name, but all doing inspiring work to give too often forgotten women a new shot at life. And, we’ve helped train new doctors in countries throughout Africa and Asia. It’s a chain of love, really. One that begins with our caring donors and ends with doctors like Mukwege and the brave women he treats.

After a decade at this, I know one thing for sure: fistula treatment attracts souls with the deepest of hearts. I realize that sounds like brown-nosing "fluff," a platitude, but here’s the thing: it is true. Empathy - the killer app of virtues - is what all of our donors have in common. They want to help women they’ll never meet, suffering from a horrendous injury most of us can only imagine. The reward: the simple satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped someone who needs you.

We don’t have star-studded galas. The hospitals we build don’t have donor names on them. In fact, our most generous donor specifically said that she didn’t want her name on a hospital we were building with her money. Instead, she said, "have the people who will use it name it something meaningful to them." Think of how often you’ve read about a big money donor angling to get their name on a New York concert hall or a New England college building. They could learn a thing or two from our donors about genuine generosity and rewards for the heart.

27,997 donors from 63 countries and counting have supported those 20,000 women by making more than 147,000 donations! That’s an invisible army fighting a devastating menace: the apathy that says, those women are not my problem. These caring people say, yes, they are, and how can I help?

Over the last decade, we’ve had steadfast support from Johnson & Johnson, providing money, materials and ideas. We’ve also benefited from the unique talents of two extraordinary men, Pulitzer Prize winner, Nicholas Kristof, and Emmy Award winning Jeopardy! champ, Louis CK, who have opened new hearts and minds for us.

We’ve got a long way to go, with a million women needing our collective help. But today, let’s celebrate dedicated doctors and nurses, donors filled with empathy and the women who’ve had to endure so very much suffering, and whose resilience in the face of it all inspires me.

Having spent decades jailed as a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa, we can learn from the late Nelson Mandela about how to pursue a goal that can take decades to achieve.

"Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead," he said.

Well, we’ve got a growing Empathy army that will make that road ahead less challenging. It takes my breath away.

Learn more about Fistula Foundation and the organization's work to transform the lives of women suffering from fistula at www.fistulafoundation.org.

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