The most extraordinary conversation I had this year almost didn't happen.
It was a Friday night. The office was closed when a member of our team came to my office door and told me that a donor was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. Fistula Foundation has over 50,000 names in our donor database, so my initial instinct was to ask her to just take a message. I was trying to get a major plan done for an upcoming Board meeting, a necessary but tiring task I'd been working on in the margins for weeks, and time was finally up. But, that little voice one should never ignore told me to take the call.
The woman calling said her name was Lisa, and she'd called to thank me for a thank you letter I had sent to her for her recent donation. I should have recognized her name, but middle-aged exhaustion and a lot of letters that week meant that her name did not ring the proverbial bell it should have. As my teenage son would say, "my bad."
Lisa's voice was warm, bright and engaging. She said she lived in a rural area, where "bears outnumber people" and the population of her county and the next, bears included, was about 50,000. Though she'd lost her husband, she had children and grandchildren who clearly brought her joy. With an infectious laugh, she said she was "just a working stiff." I liked her; she reminded me of relatives I have living in Montana -- grounded, unpretentious, "salt of the earth" stock.
She explained that her brother-in-law had given her a copy of Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save, and she found the theme -- that any of us can act to help end world poverty -- compelling and wanted to do something. She started by buying a case of the book and giving copies to her family and friends. But she wanted to do more.
From Singer's book, she learned about the childbirth injury obstetric fistula, which, untreated, leaves women incontinent, and about the $450 surgery that can cure the woman, basically transforming her life. She added that she thought her gift would be able to help at least 70 women. This took me back. 70 women! While fistula surgery can cost as little as $450, 70 women would mean she'd given us over $30,000!!! (Our average gift is under $100, Lisa was now one of our biggest donors ever.)
As my mind raced, Lisa's story got even better. She said she was not a rich woman, but she'd had a windfall recently. A lawsuit she thought would never go anywhere was finally settled and she'd gotten a settlement. And here's the kicker: the case was for gender discrimination. She said her co-worker had used her settlement to buy a car, but Lisa wanted to do something better. So with an alchemy that is, to me, still breathtaking, Lisa said she wanted to use her money to help heal women also injured by the world. After some research, she decided she wanted to help women with fistula.
I sat there speechless. A lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit. What could I say? I blabbered about how moved I was by what she had done, and how fortunate I thought her kids and grandkids were to have someone as generous as her in their lives. When I finally hung up the phone I felt both energized and inspired. I knew I'd just talked to a truly exceptional woman, one I'd never forget.
That's one of the great blessings of working to help women with fistula; it attracts some uncommonly generous and selfless people. It can be a little hard to brag at cocktails parties about helping women with vaginal surgery, and we don't host glamorous fundraising galas, nor do we put donor names on buildings. We offer little of that. What we do offer our donors is the knowledge that they've helped a woman half a world away regain her continence, her health, and indeed her life.
And one of the best perks of my job is that, occasionally, I'm lucky enough to meet someone like Lisa.