Seattle Graduate Battles to End Fistula; Crippling Childbearing Injury

happy-woman-fistula.jpgSeattle native Heidi Breeze-Harris was two months pregnant when she began Landmark Education’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program. She had recently heard about fistula for the first time, and was thinking about starting a non-profit organization to combat the problem. It seemed to be a perfect fit for a project in the program. Little did she know what her project would develop into.

Fistula is a deblitating childbirth injury that affects over 2 million women, mostly in the developing world.  Specifically, a fistula is a hole in the body caused by an obstructed labor, one that can last up to five days. This labor usually results in the death of the infant, and the mother is left with a hole between her bladder and the outside world through which she will leak urine and sometimes feces uncontrollably for the rest of her life unless she receives treatment.

Women who suffer from this often live in shame, and are cast out by their husbands and families–They can no longer bear children, they often smell, and they often suffer other injuries from the fistula, such as nerve damage and difficulty walking. It can be life destroying.

As bad as all of this is, fistula is completely treatable and preventable. To treat one woman with fistula costs about $300, which completely restores her to full health.

Breeze-Harris says: “I felt I really had something to contribute to help fistula become a memory.” Together with Katya Matanovic she founded One by One, founded from the knowledge that we as individuals can alter this global health issue–That each of us, one by one, can transform a woman’s life and in turn the life of her community.

Fo make this happen she wanted to harness the power of many people, so she hatched the idea of a Giving Circle: A person would contribute $30, and would take on having 9 of their friends or family give $30 each as well. This would raise $300 and pay for one person’s treatment. Giving circles started out small but are now carried out by people all over the world.

This past November, Leslie Garland, a current participant in another Self-Expression and Leadership Program, heard about One by One’s giving circles from a friend and decided to make them HER project for the program. She has already hosted two circles and is in the process of mentoring new giving circle leaders.

woman-fistula.jpgLater that year, the problem of obstructed labor became acutely personal for her, as the delivery of her own son was obstructed and she nearly died in childbirth. Only an emergency caesarian section and a second surgery to stop massive internal bleeding saved her life. It took her over a month to recover, but afterwards she turned her attention back to One by One with renewed energy, more committed than ever that the organization make a huge difference in ending obstetric fistula forever.

One by One has grown exponentially, continuing to make any ever-growing difference. One by One awards grants to many community  programs and medical facilities that directly heal women from the damage of fistula. For instance, One by One’s 2007 grant to the Bugando Medical Center Fistula Center in Tanzania is ensuring that the 250 women treated there this year receive superior care, and that the Center is able to train doctors and nurses from all across Tanzania in fistula care. One by One also does a good deal of public advocacy work.

As One by One has skyrocketed this year, Breeze-Harris was recognized by Cookie Magazine with a Smart Cookie Award. As the Reader’s Choice Honoree, she received her award alongside celebrities such as Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone and Marcia Gay Harden, all of whom were recognized with Breeze-Harris as mothers “working to make the world a better place.”

In all, One by One has directed more than $300,000 to the fight to end fistula–Raised from thousands of people, $30 at a time. Breeze-Harris credits the Self-Expression and Leadership program for pushing her to set big goals and work to end fistula in a more ambitious way than she ever imagined.

“For me, the process has been magical, challenging and life-changing,” she relates. “It has been a tremendous achievement to help so many women and I take great pride in that. The work has also been about quality interactions on every level, person by person, one by one. I am grateful, for it brings me great joy.”

To learn more about One by One, get involved  or start a giving circle of your own, visit One by One’s website!

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