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Guest Blog: A Voice for the Voiceless

December 7, 2020

Rachel and Dr. Richter

As a university professor whose research focuses on the history of early American women, I have long been committed to telling the stories of forgotten female figures; I strive to give voice to the voiceless. As a recent vesicovaginal fistula survivor, I have become increasingly aware of contemporary women in the developing world who are forgotten and overlooked in the context of immense suffering. I have thus become committed to advocating for them; as a scholar and as a fellow human being, I hope to give voice to another group of voiceless women.

Many women throughout the world develop a fistula as a result of prolonged, obstructed labor. Mine occurred due to extensive bladder injuries sustained during an abdominal hysterectomy. Unlike my fistula sisters in Africa, I had access to good medical care and hygiene products, and I had a supportive network of family members and friends throughout my entire ordeal. And yet, even with those advantages, my suffering proved to be immense. In the course of a year, I experienced excruciating pain, was hospitalized for declining kidney function, battled multiple infections, experienced extreme flank pain, developed overactive bladder, underwent several surgical procedures, had to manage a foley catheter for extended periods of time, developed shingles, and found myself physically, emotionally, and financially drained. My life seemed to be centered in the urology office and cystoscopies and CT cystograms became a far too common part of my life. I could not engage in normal activities, including teaching my classes, for an entire year. Although people were kind to me, no one understood the trauma that I experienced daily. I felt like I had become a shadow of my former self.

Although I had a wonderfully kind and supportive urologist, finding a surgeon who could repair my fistula proved to be difficult. Like women in Africa, I, too, had to become a fistula pilgrim. My final surgery took place 1,700 miles from home. I had to travel back and forth, through a global pandemic, to receive the medical care I needed. It took a full year of suffering before I was finally declared “dry” on July 30, 2020. Ironically, my hysterectomy had taken place on July 31, 2019; I had literally come full circle.

As my healing journey continues, I think often about my fistula sisters around the world. Their suffering echoes and transcends my own. They do not live within walking distance of a well-staffed hospital, as I do. They do not have multiple doctors working together in their behalf. They do not have ready access to sanitary supplies and medication. And they often do not have the much-needed support of family members and friends. Far too many walk alone. As voiceless victims, they suffer in ways even I cannot fully comprehend.

As a fistula survivor, I plead with others to remember the forgotten, to see the invisible, and to hear those that have been silenced. Every donation, whatever the amount, can and will make a difference to a group of women who deserve to live whole lives again. As we come to the end of a very difficult year for everyone, I invite you to join me in my efforts to give fistula victims throughout the world hope in the future.