VVF stands for vesico-vaginal fistula, which is something that typically occurs during childbirth, and typically only occurs in developing countries with little access to health care. (In the developed world, the problem is fixed immediately in the hospital.)
Sometimes in Africa women with complicated labors will labor for many days to a week. Part of the problem is that many of the women, especially in the most isolated and rural areas, are physically very small. Although they may have had enough food growing up (or maybe not), all the energy and calories go towards the heavy work of hauling water and fuel for cooking, instead of going towards growth. Another part of the problem is that sometimes the nearest road is many hours' walk away and the hospital further still. So a woman may labor for days or weeks(!) with only her family and the villagers for help.
After a while, the constant pressure of the baby inside the birth canal can cause tissue to die, and a hole forms between the bladder (or sometimes the bowel) and the birth canal. The end result is that for the rest of her life, the woman constantly leaks urine, stool, or both. Tragically, the baby almost always dies in the process of the difficult labor.
A woman who leaks urine is shunned by her family, outcast by her community, and usually abandoned by her husband. Her worth as a woman is intrinsically tied to her ability to bear children and raise a family. She often thinks of killing herself with poison.
Somehow she hears about a ship that has come to Benin to help her; somehow she endures hours of walking and bus rides; somehow she survives the ridicule of strangers; somehow she finds her way in an unfamiliar city to the Africa Mercy and is screened for surgery.
She arrives in the ward with her lappa wrapped tightly around her, eyes downcast, trying to make herself unnoticeable.
I welcome her with a smile, help her get washed and give her a bed with clean sheets and pads to help her stay dry. I explain the surgery: what it will be like and what she should expect. And we pray together before she goes into the operating room--that she would know Jesus' love, that God would guide the hands of the surgeon, that she will have a successful outcome.
She comes back from the surgery, sleepy and worn out... but she smiles at me as I help her get back into bed. She is dry--so far so good--but only time will tell if the surgery really worked.
Today, her name is Justine, and her name is Rosalen. Tomorrow, there will be three new names: three women having surgery, three women hoping for a new chance at life. If the surgery works, she is given a new dress to symbolize her new beginning, and we celebrate with dancing and singing praises to the Lord. Then she returns home, hopefully back to the now-open arms of her family and husband.
(Women dancing for a dress ceremony after successful VVF surgery)
The surgery isn't always successful, so we walk a fine line between dancing and mourning on the wards during our VVF surgery season.
Our VVF program on Mercy Ships is called Hope Reborn, completely apropos for a surgery that can give a woman new hope and new life in her community. We also talk with each woman about God's love for her, so sometimes she is also born into the family of God while she is here! Many women are already Christians when they come to the ship, but have not been truly loved or seen for years--sometimes decades--due to their condition.
Watching these women bloom as they discover they are loved and they are not alone is one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever been part of.
Today, at the end of my shift, the other beautiful thing was the pad underneath Justine: it was dry.
(For more information about VVF, watch the movie A Walk to Beautiful, or read the book The Hospital by the River. Both cover the work of Dr. Catherine Hamlin, a missionary in Ethiopia who first brought VVF to the public eye.)
(Linked to "Tuesdays Unwrapped" at a lovely blog called Chatting at the Sky.)