John Little's Memories of Catherine

John Little's Memories of Catherine


Co-author of The Hospital by the River and author of Catherine's Gift, John Little shares some of his memories of Dr Catherine Hamlin. You can purchase The Hospital by the River and the continuing story, Catherine's Gift at the Hamlin Shop here.

I first fell under Catherine’s spell in the year 2000 when I went to Ethiopia to help her write The Hospital by the River. I was, of course, already in awe of her achievements, giving joyous new life to many thousands of despairing women. I had repeatedly heard her described as “saintly” so I was apprehensive when I met her for the first time in Addis Ababa. Would she be straight-laced, humourless, difficult to work with?

Catherine was, in fact, a delight to be with. As busy as she was with surgery and running the hospital, she found time each day to sit with the tape recorder running and to reminisce about her remarkable life. The years of, as she put it, “begging” for funds; living through political upheavals; the early years with her husband, Reg; and especially her recollections of some of the tragic cases, which left me choking back tears. Her memory was prodigious and she told her stories well, often with a touch of impish humour.

After the day’s research we would have our evening meal together, sometimes with friends whom she had thoughtfully invited to contribute. Catherine was lively company. There was always plenty of laughter at these mealtimes. Living far from the mainstream of the western world she was intensely curious about anything new. She wanted to know all about me and my family and my interests, which was  a refreshing change from some of the famous people I’ve dealt with.

Being in her company was a bit like stepping back into another era, when the old fashioned values of politeness and consideration and grace were important. You saw it in her everyday dealings with patients and staff. I once said to her, “They do love you, don’t they?”

“Yes they do,” she replied. “And I love them.”

In 2007 I returned to Ethiopia to write Catherine’s Gift, a first person account of life at the hospital. There were now three more hospitals doing fistula surgery and others were planned. The school of midwifery was about to open and Desta Mender, the village for severely injured patients was up and running. Catherine was 87 now, still working as hard as ever, still performing surgery and as determined as ever to eradicate fistulas.

Everyone who worked for Cathrine loved her. Typical was Dr Maluku at Mekele. I asked him what he thought when he first met her.

He paused for a long moment, then two big tears welled up before he managed to speak. “Oh, I don’t have any word to express that feeling. She is an angel.”

Catherine was uncomfortable with praise. She never liked being called a saint. I can see why people use that word, though. I have never in my life known such an utterly good human being.

- John Little


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