In September 2016, a UCLA surgical team completed their annual obstetric fistula repair and training camp in Uganda. The nine-member team provided surgeries for women suffering from fistula, as well as offered training to local providers and medical trainees in the techniques of fistula repair. The team, led by Dr. Christopher Tarnay, Division Chief of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery at UCLA, operates under the non-profit organization, Medicine for Humanity, or MFH. Through a partnership with Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), UCLA team members are playing a critical role in improving access to high-quality maternal health care and gynecological surgery in Uganda.

Obstetric fistula is a childbearing injury in which holes are formed between the mother’s birth canal and digestive tract, leaving the woman chronically incontinent. Fistula can occur as a result of obstructed labor, when a baby becomes trapped in the birth canal, necessitating an emergency Cesarean section. Because of limited access to health care facilities in remote areas, emergency C-sections are often unavailable, giving women no other option than to endure sometimes life-threatening labor. Prolonged obstructed labor can have severe consequences for both the mother and baby. The baby can die due to lack of oxygen and the mother can develop fistula, which often leads to chronic medical problems and social ostracism.

For the past 7 years, Dr. Tarnay has regularly been taking surgical teams to Uganda for fistula repair “camps,” two-week long concentrated collaborations between MFH and MUST to provide and improve access to fistula care. Any woman who needs fistula repair is provided the surgery, as well as all transportation, housing, food, medical support, and postoperative rehabilitative services, free of charge.

This year, the UCLA/MFH team performed 64 fistula surgeries and 20 Cesarean sections, while concurrently training local Ugandan residents in Urogynecology. By allocating a significant portion of time towards the training and education of local providers, MFH takes a sustainable approach to improving access to fistula care.

Apart from capacity building and the provision of surgical care, the work of MFH is also deeply linked to a more holistic, emotional aspect of healing. “The team is able to do so much more than just repair the physical aspects of fistula,” said Dr. Tarnay. “This operation can be life changing. Being able to witness these women leave the hospital smiling and with hope perhaps for the first time in years brings tremendous gratification.”

For more information on UCLA’s efforts with Medicine for Humanity, visit www.MedicineForHumanity.org.

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