Operation Uganda

Dr. Christopher Tarnay is pictured here with Sanini who was married at 15 and pregnant at 16. Her baby died during a long and difficult labor and the resulting fistula from the traumatic birth caused her husband to leave her. Sanini credits Dr. Tarnay with making her life now worth living.

Dr. Christopher Tarnay directs the division of pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at UCLA. He’s also one of the few surgeons in the world who can repair complex fistulas. 

Fistulas 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 (sometimes both) and the birth canal that allows urine and sometimes stool to leak uncontrollably. In 80 percent of these cases, the baby dies.

It rarely happens in the United States because when there’s an obstructed labor that could cause a fistula, the baby is delivered by cesarean section. But in remote African villages, women can be hours, perhaps days away from a hospital.

“These women and girls are ostracized by their communities,” Dr. Tarnay said. “The smell around them is so bad that they are banished from their homes. This operation is life changing for them. They never complain, but endure tremendous pain and hardship with grace and resilience.

“This happens to be a condition we can repair. We help women whose lives have been ruined because of fistulas. We pay for a radio broadcast urging women who suffer from incontinence of stool or urine after childbirth to come for treatment. Word spreads. The day before we arrive, women start coming in on foot and by bus. When they arrive at our clinics, they are so sad because of this debilitating condition. They leave smiling for the first time in years.”

Dr. Tarnay has been taking volunteer medical teams to Uganda for five years as part of the Malibu-based charity, Medicine for Humanity. With the full support of his wife, LanAnh Do, also a physician, and their two children Matthew, 11, and MaiAnh, 9, both pupils at Webster Elementary School, Dr. Tarnay has been paying for these trips himself.

He and his team take everything necessary to build the camp, including medical equipment and medication. And they provide accommodation, food and water for patients and their caregivers (who can be family members as young as 10 years old).

“We can take care of 50 women in two weeks, working from sun up to sun down. If we don’t go, they don’t get taken care of. My goal is to not be needed because we’ve trained enough local medics to take over fistula repair,” Dr. Tarnay said.

Medicine for Humanity was founded two decades ago by lifelong Malibu resident Dr. Leo Lagasse. The Professor Emeritus at UCLA has travelled the world (also at his own expense) helping women with gynecologic cancers. 

Now, at the age of 83, Dr. Lagasse remains the charity’s president, but Dr. Tarnay has taken over as medical director.

“Chris will keep Medicine for Humanity going,” Dr. Lagasse said. “He’s well qualified and well motivated.”

A fundraiser marking Medicine for Humanity’s 20th anniversary will take place on Sunday, May 31 at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club. The aim is to make sure this vital work of improving the health of women in under-served populations, bringing medical care and creating sustainable programs of education, prevention and treatment can continue. It will also raise awareness of the charity, as well as celebrate Dr. Lagasse’s enormous contribution. 

For more information about Medicine for Humanity and tickets for the fundraiser, where internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Julia Fordham is performing, visit medicineforhumanity.org.