‘THE HOSPITAL BY THE RIVER’ by Dr Catherine Hamlin -A Book Review

The Hospital By The River


THE HOSPITAL BY THE RIVER exceeded all my expectations. I have always admired Dr Catherine Hamlin as an Australian heroine. What she has achieved in her lifetime, is a superhuman feat. She believes it was God’s Will.

In her book, Dr Catherine Hamlin begins by writing about the family histories and medical backgrounds of both her and her husband, Dr Reg Hamlin, in Australia, New Zealand, and later in the UK. Both came from privileged backgrounds. Intertwined with the Hamlins’ wonderful work saving the lives of hundreds of mothers and their babies in Ethiopia, are expressions of their deep Christian faith, and the comfort it brings them. Even though I am not a religious person, I can fully understand how their faith kept them going through some very difficult and challenging times, not least of all, a dangerous war. The couple sacrificed a great deal in order to build their hospital and bring healing to hundreds of poor Ethiopian mothers and their babies. However, I felt that in following their God’s mission, their only son Richard, also paid a heavy price.

Dr Hamlin goes on to detail the travelling and begging the couple had to engage in to bring in funds to keep their dream, and the hospital they had built, afloat. She documents the perfection of surgical techniques used in the repair of fistulae to restore quality of life to their frail, and sometimes, dying patients. Many babies were born dead, sometimes jammed in the birth canal for days, because of protracted labours. Cultural practices mean mothers are made to squat for days during labour causing terrible injuries to their bladders, bowels, and vaginas. Some mothers’ uteri burst with devastating consequences. These injuries leave afflicted mothers with a life lived in misery, unable to control their bladders or bowels. They are abandoned by their husbands and families, left to fend for themselves in filth, and near starvation.

The hospital the Hamlins built in Ethiopia, with the help of worldwide financial donations, and the support of powerful Ethiopians, has given hope to thousands of women; more than 90% are fully cured. Those who cannot be cured, perhaps left with minor wounds, are able to live in adjacent hostels within the hospital compound.  Some of those who are cured, stay on to be trained as nurses and midwives. Others progress to operating assistants and surgeons.

The compelling stories of the lives of long suffering patients are truly heart rending, and yet uplifting, due to the vibrant spirit of Ethiopian women. These brave, often under-nourished women, walk for days, months or years, to get to the Hamlin hospital of hope, where they can have life saving surgery.  Be that as it may, I could not but help see the great irony within the pages of this book: The Hamlins, as Anglican Missionaries, worked tirelessly, operating on these poor, rejected mothers with horrific rectovaginal fistulae, mostly caused by giving birth too young, or by being raped. The majority of women they performed surgery on, were of a Christian Orthodox religion which culturally supports child marriages, often girls as young as eight. As an Orthodox priest remarked: “otherwise they will fall into sin like Western women who don’t have children until they are 30”!!  So here we have Christian missionary surgeons repairing horrific injuries which another Christian sect, in essence, fully condones!  No blame whatsoever attached to husbands or rapists.

At the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder, in an ideal world, would it not have been wiser and more efficacious for the Christian World to unite, and spend those millions travelling around Ethiopia, educating the men and empowering the women? But then the hallmark of religion has always been more about tradition than visionary reform.


Read more here about rectovaginal fistulae and the suffering of girls giving birth too young 


© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 14 May 2015


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  1. Hi Anne, This is indeed tragedy in a nutshell. What wonderful people the Hamilns are and so many others like them, who dedicate their lives to others. I agree with your last remark Anne.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne said:

    I marvel at the mental and physical energy the Hamlins displayed…they barely had time for themselves except on their one yearly holiday


  3. It is like the doctors who took in a small boy who had his face eaten away by sand flies. The doctors who were man and wife finally adopted him. They too had little time for themselves. The poor boy had operation after operation to build up his face again. Did you ever see the documentary Anne ? it was called ” The Boy David”


  4. Anne said:

    No, I didn’t Rita, but I will look out for it at the library


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