Give Local, Heal Global

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Dr. Christopher Tarnay (left), pictured with Dr. Musa Kayondo (center) and Dr. Una Lee, led Medicine for Humanity’s surgical team in Uganda.

Malibu-based charity Medicine for Humanity (MFH) has recently completed its ninth mission in Uganda to operate on women suffering from terrible injuries brought about by obstructed labor. Thanks to the generosity of Malibu residents, $20,000 was raised.

MFH’s medical director Dr. Christopher Tarnay — a professor in obstetrics and gynecology and director of the division of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at UCLA — said, “I am grateful and happy to be a conduit for this goodwill and compassion from the Malibu community. I want Malibu residents to know that their donations funded our hospital camp in Mbarara. Without this local support, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

With many worthy causes all vying for donations, it’s hard for people to hear or care about genital fistula, especially as it’s almost unheard of in the United States. A fistula can occur as a result of a birth or obstetric injury. During a long and difficult labor — especially with a large baby — a hole can develop between the bladder, rectum (occasionally both) and the birth canal that allows urine (and sometimes stool) to leak uncontrollably. The baby dies in 80 percent of these cases.

It rarely happens in the developed world because if there’s any such problem, the baby is delivered by cesarean section. But in remote African villages, women can be hours — perhaps days — away from a hospital.

“This reparative operation we can provide can be life changing. These women and girls are ostracized by their communities,” Tarnay, who is one of the few surgeons in the world who can repair complex fistulas, said. “The smell around them can be so bad that they are banished from their homes. They rarely complain, but often endure tremendous pain and hardship with grace and resilience.”

It’s believed two million women in the developing world are living with this condition. On this last mission, Tarnay and his team (in partnership with their Ugandan counterparts) carried out 41 fistula repairs and 22 cesarean sections.

Part of MFH’s work is also to train local physicians to surgically treat fistula and provide tools for prevention.

“All the prevention strategies are about education and giving those women who are not laboring near hospitals an early awareness of a potential problem,” Tarnay explained, “and by teaching women and their birth attendants to recognize the signs of an obstructed labor, so they can get to a hospital as soon as possible for a safe delivery to prevent a problem from developing.

“If they’ve had a difficulty with a previous delivery, they should get to a hospital before they begin this labor, so they may have a planned cesarean section. We also encourage them to tell other women in their village about fistula and to let others with the condition know they can be helped.”

There are many ways to help. Jeff Baker is Pepperdine School of Law’s director of clinical education and is an associate clinical professor of law. Baker directs the Community Justice Clinic and serves as the school’s pro bono director. He teaches law students community law and tasked two law students to help MFH with their governance. 

Speaking through a translator, one grateful patient, Kamida, said, “Thank you. I will spread the word of this goodness in my village.” Word of mouth and radio broadcasts are the main channels that let women in villages up to 125 miles away know when MFH is next coming to Mbarara.

“Every time I go to Uganda, I am profoundly affected by the abject poverty that exists and how very fortunate I am to live here in Malibu,” Tarnay shared. “Anything anyone can do to help ease the suffering of the women we treat would be so appreciated.”

Tarnay and his team will be returning to Uganda this September and are hoping to beat the figure raised last year so they can treat more women.

For more information and to donate, visit medicineforhumanity.org or call 310.489.2197.