Caring for the Whole Woman
Dr. Steve Arrowsmith has been passionate about providing fistula repair surgeries ever since his first case. Memorably, on the first night of his first trip to Africa, Dr. Arrowsmith was awakened at 4 a.m. by the sounds of approaching footsteps and a tapping at the window. The local hospital’s general surgeon told Dr. Arrowsmith that there was a woman desperate for surgery and asked if he could assist. Dr. Arrowsmith obliged and performed his first-ever fistula repair surgery. The happiness of the woman amazed him. That was 22 years ago, and Dr. Arrowsmith has been a fistula surgeon ever since.
Today, the gratitude of fistula patients is still what inspires Dr. Arrowsmith to do his work. He has worked throughout Africa, including three years in Nigeria, where he started a Fistula Repair Center in Jos, and three years at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Dr. Arrowsmith currently serves several roles as a fistula surgeon. He trains surgeons in the clinical skills of fistula surgery and in the art of training others to provide fistula repair on board the Africa Mercy, which is operated by Mercy Ships, a faith-based organization that provides medical care in West African ports. He also serves as a vice president at the Worldwide Fistula Fund and works as a consultant for the Fistula Care Project, which is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and is managed by EngenderHealth.
Dr. Arrowsmith is grateful that he continues to meet inspirational women who teach him about courage and strength. One such woman was a Liberian refugee who was brought to a hospital in Ghana for fistula repair surgery. She and a friend had fled from rebels in her village during the Liberian civil war. She ran away from pursuing gunshots until she physically could not run any more—she was in labor, and the baby had begun to crown. Hearing gunshots approaching, the woman’s friend had to grab the baby out of her. The baby died from a broken neck, and the woman developed a fistula. Despite all of this, Dr. Arrowsmith explains, the woman has a wonderful personality and sense of humor. Dr. Arrowsmith felt honored to be around someone who still had a sense of who she is and an unbroken spirit despite all she had been through.
It is women like her who make Dr. Arrowsmith feel that his work is worthwhile. Dr. Arrowsmith is also motivated by his work as a trainer of fistula repair surgeons. He emphasizes that the most important and challenging part of training is not the technical aspects of the surgery, but rather how to impart the philosophy of caring for the whole woman. As Dr. Arrowsmith put it, "Fistula patients are real people and have the same rights as women everywhere." He believes that any surgeon can learn the technical parts of surgery, but if they understand the philosophy of caring for the whole woman, they will be motivated to set up programs that recognize that addressing fistula goes far beyond merely fixing holes in birth canals.