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Volunteer Spotlight: Lebanon Woman Works to Ease Fistula Suffering

  • Brooke Sulahian, left, and Kristen Coats pause for a photograph with a woman they met during a recent trip to Angola. Sulahian is president and co-founder of Hope for Our Sisters. Coats is director and Upper Valley area coordinator for Hope for Our Sisters. The nonprofit organization provides surgical procedures for women suffering from fistula, which causes chronic incontinence.<br/><br/>Photograph - Jean Campbell

    Brooke Sulahian, left, and Kristen Coats pause for a photograph with a woman they met during a recent trip to Angola. Sulahian is president and co-founder of Hope for Our Sisters. Coats is director and Upper Valley area coordinator for Hope for Our Sisters. The nonprofit organization provides surgical procedures for women suffering from fistula, which causes chronic incontinence.

    Photograph - Jean Campbell

  • Fistula patients walk near a hospital in Kalukembe, Angola. On a recent trip to Africa, Kristen Coats and other members of Hope for Our Sisters collected these women's stories. Fistula is a debilitating medical condition estimated to affect millions of women, primarily in Africa and the Middle East.<br/><br/>Photograph - Jean Campbell

    Fistula patients walk near a hospital in Kalukembe, Angola. On a recent trip to Africa, Kristen Coats and other members of Hope for Our Sisters collected these women's stories. Fistula is a debilitating medical condition estimated to affect millions of women, primarily in Africa and the Middle East.

    Photograph - Jean Campbell

  • Brooke Sulahian, left, and Kristen Coats pause for a photograph with a woman they met during a recent trip to Angola. Sulahian is president and co-founder of Hope for Our Sisters. Coats is director and Upper Valley area coordinator for Hope for Our Sisters. The nonprofit organization provides surgical procedures for women suffering from fistula, which causes chronic incontinence.<br/><br/>Photograph - Jean Campbell
  • Fistula patients walk near a hospital in Kalukembe, Angola. On a recent trip to Africa, Kristen Coats and other members of Hope for Our Sisters collected these women's stories. Fistula is a debilitating medical condition estimated to affect millions of women, primarily in Africa and the Middle East.<br/><br/>Photograph - Jean Campbell

Lebanon — Kristen Coats is on a mission to make the word “fistula” a part of everyone’s common vocabulary.

But it’s not because she wants to improve the world’s knowledge of arcane medical terminology. It’s because she is a member of the Upper Valley chapter of Hope for Our Sisters, a nonprofit organization that provides life-changing surgery for women suffering the debilitating effects of fistula.

“The easiest way to think of fistula is to think of it as a hole,” Coats said. “When a woman experiences a difficult or prolonged labor, the pressure of the baby’s head against the pelvic bone (can) deprive a small area of blood just long enough for a small spot of tissue to die.”

The resulting fistula, Coats said, leaves millions of women to endure years of chronic incontinence, a medical condition that not only threatens their physical well-being but may also turn them into social pariahs.

Coats recently returned from a one-week trip to Angola, where she met fistula patients in person and observed fistula surgeries at the Central Evangelical Medical Center of Lubango.

A Lebanon resident with a master’s degree in public health, Coats has worked for three years as coordinator for Upper Valley Healthy Eating Active Living Partnership at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth. Coats was accompanied in Angola by her husband, Paul, and the group’s president, Brooke Sulahian, and board member Jean Campbell, both of Massachusetts. Her time in Africa, she said, was both a “heart wrenching and wonderful experience.”

The trip required that she adjust to the “horrific odor” that fistula patients contend with every day of their lives. But it also allowed her to appreciate the courage and fortitude with which the women face their adversity.

“Resilience doesn’t even begin to describe them,” Coats said. “They have such joy in their faces.”

Coats said the cost of a fistula surgery ranges from $300-$450 per procedure and that some women suffer such extensive internal damage that they require multiple surgeries.

Virtually unheard of in more developed countries, fistula affects women primarily in Africa and the Middle East.

In areas where maternal health care may be rudimentary at best, the well-being of women may be further compromised by malnutrition and sexual violence. Where rape is a weapon of war, Coats said, the violence perpetrated against women can be especially savage.

Coats spoke of one fistula patient whose internal organs were so badly injured that “they were unrecognizable.”

To raise money for fistula surgeries, Coats said, she and JoAnn DuMoulin, of White River Junction, have begun hosting women’s teas. “They’re kind of like a Pampered Chef party,” Coats said. It’s an opportunity for women to socialize, while at the same time learning more about fistula and finding out what steps they might take to help solve the problem.

With five teas already on the schedule for the winter, Coats is optimistic that Hope for Our Sisters will continue to transform women’s lives. “Knowing leads to action and action leads to change,” Coats said.

By early September, Hope for Our Sisters had provided enough money for 162 fistula surgeries. With each new donation, Coats said, “You’re on your way to restoring a woman’s life.”

Editor’s Note: More information about Hope for Our Sisters can be found at www.hopeforoursisters.org. Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.