Half a lifetime ago, Astou’s life took a tragically unexpected turn. At the time, she was married and expecting her first child. She had a close, supportive family and was part of her community in Senegal. Astou’s future held joy and promise – until it didn’t.
When she woke up after an emergency caesarean surgery, Astou knew something was terribly wrong. She lost her precious baby during a strenuous, prolonged labour that permanently damaged her body.
“Wherever I sat became wet, “ Astou explains. At 20 years old, Astou had suffered an obstetric fistula. She was incontinent.
Astou learned her birth injury was treatable, she couldn’t find any way to pay for the reconstructive surgery she needed after her husband abandoned her.
Because of the terrible odour that surrounded her 24-7, Astou returned to her parents’ house, but became isolated from her community. She couldn’t attend church, she couldn’t go to market – her only escape was to work in the fields, comforted by the love of her family.
Then she noticed a lump growing in her neck. On top of all she had already suffered, Astou had also developed a goitre.
Hope came into Astou’s world when a remarkable man fell in love with her, just as she was. “It won’t stop me from marrying you and doing everything I can to get you medical care,” declared Mamadou.
While they waited and hoped, and saved they welcomed a little miracle: their daughter was born.
Then the remarkable happened – they heard on the radio that Mercy Ships was coming to Senegal, offering free surgeries.
Astou’s appointment was for her obvious goitre. Knowing the obstetric fistula was also treatable, Mamadou took a leap and asked if it was possible that she could have two surgeries to correct the seen and unseen conditions that afflicted his wife.
“After the surgery, when I looked at myself, I felt that I was not like before,” marveled Astou.”
At the age of 40, Astou received her free fistula surgery on board. Along with 13 other women, she spent a few weeks recovering in the hospital ship wards. Astou discovered many of the other women had also spent years searching for help for their condition. They had been on the same tragic journey, yet all had felt ashamed, helpless, and alone. Together they experienced healing that went far deeper than the physical. Together they had found hope and a future.
A few months later, Astou was back on board to have her goitre removed.
After her second surgery, Astou’s thoughts turned to fresh starts and new beginnings – and returning home.
According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 2 million women and girls live with obstetric fistula in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, usually because they have no access to obstetric care during labour. Fistulas are largely preventable but require surgery to be corrected.
Women's health and general surgery