By Eunice Aber

I sat in the doctor’s room, awestruck with a mixture of wonder and sadness. Part of me was numb with shock, the other part had to be conscious as I listened to and translated the distress of the women that walked into the room.

I had brought my aunt to the local hospital. We waited so long to see the doctor and after several aimless walks to and fro and enough boredom to send me hair-plucking, I luckily overheard one of the non-native doctors asking the nurse to find a translator. The nurse, with dismay, said there was no one around to help him. The student nurses had already gone for their recess. I jumped at the opportunity as though it was a million dollar job. Anything to relieve me of this boredom and endless waiting. With a smile of victory and contentment, I entered in after the doctor. But little did I know what awaited me in the doctor’s room.

The problems ranged from trivial matters, such as headache and malaria, to very complicated matters, like back-aches that had lasted for over ten years. This was the gynecology department, usually referred to as “gyn”. When I was growing up, I heard many people tell stories about gynecologists (most of whom are men), usually centered around how they  deprived women of their privacy.  I heard some would make you undress fully and watch just for the fun of it. Other horrible stories, like being raped, were even scarier.

With all those stories, I concluded that gynecologists didn’t have much work to do, besides to enjoy the sight of people’s wives and daughters. This new found job changed all of that. I realized gynecologists really did a lot of work. As I translated the women’s problems, my African mind would conclude that what ailed them was a result of witchcraft, but then the doctor would name a disease I’d never heard of.

Anyway, enough about the gynecologists. I would like to focus the limelight on the often overlooked and forgotten plight of our mothers. Before I entered into the doctor’s room, I thought the worst reproductive complication a woman could ever go through was “infertility”. To me, infertility was the worst complication for a woman because she would never have children for her husband. She would probably have to bear with a second wife or leave her marital home. Or she would just choose to live a life of celibacy if she found out early in life. For me, female reproductive issues were never about the woman. They were always about the man. It was as though the man deserved to be given the best and it would be the woman’s fault if she did otherwise.

But that day at the doctor’s office opened my eyes. I realized that reproductive complications put women’s lives far more at risk than I had previously thought. The women that entered the doctor’s room had all sorts of issues. They didn’t know the problems so they would just describe the symptoms, and the doctor, bless his soul, would give a diagnosis that (thankfully) was not witchcraft.

Some complained of back and waist pain, and burning sensations in the lower abdomen. Others had not seen their monthlies for over three months, yet weren’t pregnant. And they were in horrible pain. All the issues stemmed from a disease or infection in the reproductive system. Some needed to have their uterus removed since the infections had spread and could cause death. Others, old women in menopause, came in with issues of bleeding. There was even a case of ovarian cancer! My heart broke for each of the women that day.

After the doctor’s room, I had a chance to go to the gynecology ward. Some ladies there had been operated on two days earlier. I managed to strike up conversations with them and tears almost rolled down my cheeks. One of them, still in her child-bearing years, had to have her uterus removed because it was infected by fibroids. The fibroids had caused her belly to swell, resembling a pregnancy. By the time she went to the hospital she was rushed to the theatre for emergency care. If she would have waited any longer she would have died. When I asked why she hadn’t come to the doctor sooner she said the pain wasn’t persistent, so she didn’t think a visit was necessary. Sometimes she wouldn’t feel the pain at all. Little did she know that everything inside her was getting worse by the day. Another lady there, in her 40s, had also had her uterus removed because it was badly infected. She could never get pregnant because of it, and now she never would. Then there was lady who was pregnant and had to have her cervix “tied” because the baby was trying to get out!

As talked to these women, I heard a woman shout from the opposite room. It was labelled “Procedure Room”. “What could be wrong with her?” I asked one of the women. She told me she must have had a miscarriage and her stomach was being washed. I asked why she wouldn’t be anesthetized so that she couldn’t feel the pain. The lady told me the procedure is normally done without anesthesia. Tears welled in my eyes again, I felt the woman’s pain with every scream.

For a second I wondered whether I was living on earth or somewhere else. Because I had never known that any of these issues existed. Was I that sheltered? Or did these diseases only affect a certain group of people? Or was there just so little awareness raised about these issues? The questions just kept rolling in my mind.

Have we just focused our energy on other issues like family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention and cure and forgotten about these issues our mothers, the custodians of life, face?