Bertha: Panzi Hospital’s champion for life in the eastern DRC

For many of us, the Panzi Hospital near Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is the rape hospital of the country – at least, that is all the media seem to be interested in reporting from Panzi Hospital. The reality and the statistics of Panzi’s services tell a very different story; one that does not belittle the ‘normalised’ sexual violence that accompanies the escalating conflicts by a plethora of armed actors in the eastern DRC. The reality is that there is an absence of an adequate health system in the DRC, especially when it comes to reproductive and maternal health care, and this is what Panzi is largely addressing – the gaping holes in health services specifically in rural areas.

Magambo Budundwa who is a Project Assistant at the hospital, having been involved since 2003, says that Panzi has grown to become a referral hospital for many in the eastern DRC – addressing the gaps and the needs of the population. “We deal a lot with complicated pregnancies and antenatal care is also provided – DRC has a high maternal mortality rate due to the lack of medical care and facilities available for the people who live in rural DRC and have unassisted births.”

Panzi is the only hospital in South Kivu offering support after sexual violence as well as surgery and help for fistula. Elisha Biamungu, a surgical nurse at Panzi Hospital elaborates further, “Fistula is an abnormal connection between two body organs. In the case of Panzi, we deal with the abnormalities between the bladder and the vagina and the rectum and vagina.”

Biamungu goes on to explain that 68-70 percent of the surgical cases of fistula Panzi deals with are due to prolonged or unassisted labour (mostly in rural areas); 20 percent are due to bad surgery in the past or other trauma related cases and 1-3 percent are related to rape and /or sexual violence.

Mbile Misabiko, fondly known by all as Bertha, is a nurse. She was trained at Panzi Hospital and has since become a champion and a living example of life after fistula.

“I saw what the doctors did for me when I came in ostracized and afraid – I was wet and urine and faeces just came out at their own will. The smell is bad and no-one wants to be near you. I had lost all hope and preferred to be dead. After the surgery, I got help to resume my studies and trained at Panzi to help deal with women who suffer from fistula.”

Bertha adds that of 50 cases of fistula treated, 30-40 are successful and leave women able to resume more or less normal lives. “It gives me great joy when we have successful treatment. I act as a mentor to women who come here, afraid and hopeless – I show them that you can, after all, make something of your life after such an ordeal.”

Bertha has an understandable sense of pride about her work at this crucial hospital – “We are part of Panzi and as we have grown and got more donors, we have been able to offer medicines, treatment, food, soap and clothes; this was not the case before when I was a patient in 2000. With fistula, you have to wash your clothes at least five times a day – where would you get soap, if you cannot feed your family?” adds Bertha.

Panzi hospital has a unit that offers help – surgical and emotional – to survivors of sexual violence. However, Budundwa laments that this is all that visitors are interested in. There are many other needs that the Panzi hospital and its health system tries to address: “Women and men who come here know there is treatment for all ailments and they feel no stigma being at the hospital or getting treatment – Panzi is known as a hospital of good care by the population we serve.”

The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) has been supporting Panzi Hospital since 2004. As the largest donor of Panzi Hospital, ECHO’s humanitarian funds have totalled over €6.5 million in the last nine years to help address the medical needs of the most vulnerable people affected by conflict in eastern DRC.

Malini Morzaria ECHO’s Regional Information Officer covering Central East and Southern Africa