Remember there was a free fistula medical camp being advertised on television a few weeks back in July? The camp was organized and supported by among others, the Flying Doctors Society of Africa, the Freedom from Fistula Foundation, Kenyatta National Hospital and Citizen Television. I went to visit some of the women in hospital during that time and while there, I met one lady called Melvin Barongo and her husband Eric Otieno.
34 year-old Melvin Nyamao Barongo had been living with fistula for the last ten years ever since she delivered her first child in 2004. She told me that after she delivered, she noticed that she was leaking urine but thought it was something normal that all mothers who had given birth naturally go through.
On the few times it really bothered her, she thought to ask other women about it but never did so because it was too embarrassing. Also, she assumed that every other mother suffered in silence just like her so why should she talk about it yet other mothers before her weren’t doing so?
Then, closest person to her –her twin sister had delivered via caesarean section so she knew she couldn’t possibly know anything about it (since remember she thought that only women who deliver naturally are the ones who have a leaking urine problem).
Melvin told me that she kept the issue a secret from her husband until the day he asked her why their newborn son was consuming too many diapers. Eric was worried, thinking his son had a medical problem. What he didn’t know was that both mother and son were using the diapers! And that was when Melvin revealed the truth to her husband.
But she still didn’t seek treatment for it until five years later. Why? Because she was too embarrassed to do so. Melvin and her husband are based in Mombasa, Coast province. She sells clothes while he is a clerk at a bus company.
When she eventually sought treatment at a local health center, Melvin was told to do physical exercises that would help stop her urine leaks. She was told to walk around and do kegel exercises. None of this helped stop the continuous flow of urine.
In 2012, the couple had their second son. The leaking urine problem still persisted. She never mentioned it to any of the nurses who attended to her delivery.
During my interview with her, Melvin showed me the diapers that she had been using for the last ten years. She pulled out a handful of Pampers diapers size 5. Totally broke my heart listening to her and watching her remove those diapers. Those are the size of diapers that my three year old son Kitty uses for the night!
“Maryanne you have no idea the kind of life I have lived for the last ten years. Can you imagine wearing a diaper every day and every single night for the last ten years? My sons outgrow the use of diapers, but yet I still continue using them,” she said.
Melvin told me she’d go through about five diapers in a day. All through the ten years, her husband ensured she had a constant supply of them. The adult diapers would have been too expensive for their family budget, so the kids’ diapers are the best they could do with.
During this time, Melvin stopped visiting friends and relatives because she would always be scared that the diapers would leak. So she just kept to herself. Or even if she really had to visit someone, she would avoid taking any liquid so that her bladder wouldn’t fill up. She would also hold back any laughter and would suppress coughs as any of these activities would make her urine gush out and perhaps cause the diaper to leak –something she couldn’t dare risk. Imagine that.
So one day last month as she and her husband were having dinner while watching tv, they chanced on an advert on Citizen television calling on all women who leaked urine or faeces to make their way to Kenyatta National Hospital for free screening and treatment. And they wasted no time. They quickly packed their things, booked their tickets and came to Nairobi.
On 24 July 2014, Melvin had her successful fistula repair surgery. She did not pay a shilling for it. And her husband was there with her all through her admission in hospital, which was about two weeks. When I met Melvin at KNH’s Ward 42 which is where the fistula patients were kept before being transferred to Ward 1B for recovery, I actually thought Eric was a member of staff because he was always there chatting happily with the nurses and he seemed to know his way around the place so well. Turns out he was her husband, and had never once left her side all through her admission. He reported to her ward every morning and was the last visitor to leave at night, a routine he did for a whole two weeks!
He told me that all through the ten years of his wife’s fistula, he too felt like he had fistula.
“It has been a long journey for both of us and I have walked with her all through it. That is why I am here with her during this final step as well as it has been my journey too. I am so happy because it will be a new beginning for us,” he excitedly told me.
Well, Melvin is one very lucky woman. Many women with fistula have had their husbands leave them because they cannot stand the smell and the general association of urine or leaking faeces. As you may know, sexual relations with a woman who has fistula can be very challenging and many men do not hang around for long.
But Eric did.
The couple has since returned to Mombasa. Last Saturday, Melvin called me to update me on how her life has changed.
“I am so much happier, I keep coughing intentionally just to check if my panty is stained, but it remains dry. Now I can even burst out into laughter without having to worry about a urine gush. I can now go for chama or visit my friend and drink the tea they offer me without any reservations. I cannot believe that I don’t have to wear a diaper at night or during the day. I keep checking myself thinking that I’ve wet my clothes, but I see no stain. I still think that I’m dreaming. You have no idea what that surgery has done for me,” she told me.
Wow. Happy for her too!
Seeing how her life has transformed in just those few weeks, you just have to commend those NGO’s that fundraise so that people like Melvin can have a better life.
Are you implementing a community project targeting mothers that you’d like me to write about? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you.