Lending Much-Needed Helping Hands to the People of Africa

By: Tracy M. Fitzgerald

While visiting Africa in support of the U.S. State Department’s International Information Program in the early 2000’s,  Barbara Margolies had the unique opportunity to meet with Madam Aicha Foumakoye, the then Minister of Social Development in Niger. Through her conversations with him, she learned about a complex and debilitating health condition called vesico vaginal fistula, impacting thousands of Nigerian women. And right away, she knew she had to do something about it.

“What I learned and what I saw literally brought me to tears,” Margolies said. “These women, some as young as 13 years old, were suffering and needed help.”

In 2003, she led the establishment of the International Organization for Women and Development (IOWD), with a goal to rally surgeons and nurses together to provide volunteer medical assistance for women in Africa who required surgery. Vesico vaginal fistula is a result of prolonged, obstructed labor without medical assistance, causing the formation of a hole in the wall between a woman’s bladder and vagina, and leading ultimately of the leakage of urine. With extremely limited access to doctors, medical facilities and medications, more than 200,000 African women have become outcasts in their own society as a consequence of this extremely humiliating and uncomfortable condition.

With Margolies’ leadership, IOWD’s first medical mission took place in October 2003, and since then, more than 1,000 African women have been treated by U.S. doctors and nurses, who have volunteered their time and talent to not only performing surgeries and providing medical care, but also serving as teachers for African physicians, originally in Niger, and more recently in Rwanda. IOWD has organized teams of 25 to 30 obstetricians, gynecologists, anesthesiologists, urologists and nurses, and has returned to Africa nearly 30 times, making strides with each visit toward the establishment of a sustainable program for the repair of fistulas.

“The key is to go back again and again,” Margolies said, who has worked to develop partnerships with King Faisal Hospital and Kibagabaga Regional Hospital, both in Rwanda. “Over time, this is what has helped us earn the trust and respect of the people there. They know we care and want to help them, and they welcome us whole heartedly when we arrive each time.”

Four physicians from Maryland have taken part in IOWD’s mission efforts, three of which represent Anne Arundel Medical Center: Dr. Briana Walton, a pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeon; Dr. David McDermott, a urological surgeon; and Dr. Claudia Hays, OB/GYN. Dr. Joan Blomquist, a urogynecologist from GBMC, has also volunteered. Margolies believes that the physicians who get involved are people with special gifts and hearts.

“The doctors come and see what the needs are, and most importantly the impact they can have … and then they come back,” she said. “Coming on these mission trips gives our doctors a chance to use their skills in a new way, and they like that.”

Mission trip planning is a constant priority for Margolies, and she is actively seeking new volunteers for upcoming visits to Rwanda. Her most significant need is for physicians and nurses who specialize in obstetrics, gynecology and urology. Those interested in learning more about how to get involved can contact Margolies directly by sending an email to info@iowd.org.


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