Nelly Bassily | December 9, 2013
Whilst patrolling the wards of the hospital she founded in Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail holds the hand of a teenage girl about to have an operation. She urges her to be brave.
It is an approach that owes much to the influence of her father, Dr. Adan Ismail. He used to ask his daughter, now 76, to wash forceps and make bandages out of old bed sheets as a young girl.
Ms. Adan says that her father taught her how to be compassionate and generous. She adds, “He taught me the value of looking after the sick. One of his favourite expressions was ‘if you cannot do it with your heart, your hands will never do it.'”
In 1950, her father was called away to work in a relief camp for people affected by a severe drought, dubbed the “Season of Red Winds.” He left notes for his then 12-year-old daughter asking her to make sure patients received their medication or had their sutures removed.
Ms. Adan says: “I had no idea what these medicines were for but I was the boss’ daughter, so I would just go to whoever was in charge of the hospital and say ‘by the way, Dad wanted you to remove these.'”
And she vowed, one day, to build the kind of hospital that her father would have wished to have.
The Edna Adan University Hospital first opened its doors in 2002. Patients have come from as far as Mogadishu, more than 800 kilometres south, and neighbouring Ethiopia, to seek treatment in the well-equipped facility. Ms. Adan and her medical team have delivered more than 14,000 babies and treated more than 140,000 patients for problems ranging from dysentery to diabetes.
Ms. Adan says it had been a lifelong dream to open a hospital in her native Somaliland. The desire increased when she saw how the civil war had ruined the healthcare system in the territory which declared independence from Somalia in 1991.
She lives at the hospital in a modest apartment and shares meals with her staff. During a break, she recalls, “Midwives, and nurses, who had been trained in Somaliland or Somalia before the war had either fled the country or died.”
One factor in Somaliland’s relative success has been her hospital’s focus on training a generation of midwives. Experts give Ms. Adan much of the credit for Somaliland’s maternal mortality rate being a quarter that of Somalia, where one in 12 women die in childbirth and one baby in eight can expect to die before the age of five.
In Africa, fewer than 50 per cent of births are attended by a skilled health worker, which contributes to the high numbers of women who die as a result of childbirth. But over the years, Ms. Adan has trained 300 midwives, and sent them to help women give birth safely in the most remote parts of the country. The expense has largely been paid for through her own money.
She says: “What I want to leave behind for my people is not only a building, not only four walls and bricks and beds. I want to leave people who are trained, who are compassionate, and who are as passionate about what they are doing as I am.”