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The Phaedra Hospital, Tanzania

Fistula is a birthing injury with lifelong consequences if left untreated. It is a direct result of a lack of health facilities and of surgeons trained in caesarean sections. Fistulas are unnatural holes between organs such as the vagina, bowel, rectum and bladder caused by the trauma of obstructive childbirth. Frequently, both mother and child die. If the mother survives, she is left with malodorous urine and faeces leaking from bodily cavities for the rest of her life. As a result, she is ostracised by her family and community.

Towards the end of my book, A Glorious Ride: From Jumble Plains to Eternity, I allude to a venture I started with the CSIRO. This has proven to be an enormous success, blessed mightily by God. We won the prize for best commercialisation of an invention in Australia and are expecting the company, which I founded and of which I was Chairman, to be listed mid-2022.

My wife, Rae and I have committed the bulk of our investment to our foundation. We have already been able to fund a new hall and built a new learning centre at The Lachlan Macquarie Institute, with which I have been deeply involved through the Australian Christian Lobby, of which I am Chairman Emeritus. Our next major project is building a hospital near Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania. The facility will offer free medical care in a maternity hospital for women to give birth, thereby preventing obstetric fistula. Additionally, those who may already be suffering from the dreadful condition will be operated on free of charge.

Nairobi in Kenya is a bustling city full of contrasts. Rich and poor; old and new. Although it is only one degree from the equator, Nairobi has an equable climate because it is about 1,800 metres above sea level. On a lovely warm morning on 7th Aug 1998, Phaedra Vrontamitis was rushing to get away as she had a busy day at the office. She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, when her mother came into labour unexpectedly as she was flying from Athens to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Phaedra’s Greek parents then lived in Ethiopia but had to flee that country when Haile Selassie was deposed. The family moved to Nairobi, where they started new coffee plantations.

Phaedra was a beautiful Christian lady who worshipped God in the Greek Orthodox tradition. In 1973 she gave birth to Alexi, her second of three sons, and this handsome young man later married our only daughter Samantha. When Phaedra arrived at her place of work that day, she immediately set about processing applications from people seeking a visa to the USA. She was the head of that section at the USA Embassy in Nairobi, where she had worked for 33 years. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, and she was gone.

The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, under the direction of Osama bin Laden, had struck again. Two hundred and thirteen innocent people were killed by the massive blast from a truck bomb parked under Phaedra’s window. A further four thousand were injured. Driven by their Islamic beliefs, the terrorists were once again hell-bent on demonstrating their power over the infidels. We shall never forget the impact on our family and the pain and grief this wicked, selfish, senseless act caused.

Rae and I have been blessed by Phaedra’s son, Alexi, who, with our daughter, Samantha, recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. They are the parents of four of our gorgeous grandchildren. Raised and educated in Nairobi, Kenya, Alexi met Samantha at the famous Hotel Management School in Bluche, Switzerland, where they fell in love and were later married in Geneva.

The pain of our family’s irreplaceable loss at the hands of Al-Qaeda will haunt us forever, but we try not to have this terrible tragedy blind us to Christianity’s command to forgive whilst hanging on to the other cardinal virtues of hope and love.

It is immensely satisfying to us that our Foundation is able to develop such a facility in memory of the beautiful Phaedra Vrontamitis. On behalf of his entire family, which was affected by the tragic loss of Phaedra, our son-in-law, Alexi, wrote us this poignant note: “The 7th of Aug 1998 was singularly the most catastrophic day in the lives of three brothers, an incredible sister and brother, Anastasia and Aki, your incredible daughter Samantha, and so many more of the 200 souls that lost their lives in the pointless cowardice that is terrorism. I, along with our families, have struggled over two decades with a pain that should not be there. A grand-mum should know her grandkids, especially our Mum.

We have struggled to comprehend WHY she was taken away and have all been certain that some good must come of this. Twenty-three years later, God has a plan! He has graced us with you both, Tony and Rae. You have found a way to fund a hospital that will take care of thousands upon thousands of girls affected with the debilitating condition of fistula. Through God’s grace and your foundation, we can foresee a reason for the pain we have all gone through with the creation of the Phaedra Hospital in Tanzania. My brothers are my greatest heroes, two men whom I consider my closest friends that I love more than words can describe, something Mum taught us from very early on. I know we instil these same ideals in her grandchildren.

I spoke to Paulie tonight, who would be thrilled to play a part in the foundation and have an ongoing voice for the McLellan Foundation as a board member if successful. Sam, I and the kids love you both so much, and we hope to spend eternity together. All our love from the Vrontamitis and the Vaporidis families.” We are excited at the prospect of using a portion of God’s blessings to us to help these poor women in East Africa and, at the same time, honour the memory of Phaedra Vrontamitis, the mother of our beloved son-in-law and father of four of our beautiful grandchildren. After making the commitment to the building of the new hospital, we learned that Phaedra and her sister worked as volunteers at Catherine Hamlin’s fistula hospital in Ethiopia, where the sisters then lived. This is a great honour for our family to be involved in such a project. It is confirmation that when you get pruned as we were (John 15) and commit your life to God, he guides you; he protects you, and He showers His love on you.

In December 2021, we met in our home, Dr Andrew Browning AM. An Australian-trained obstetrician and gynaecologist, Dr Browning has worked in Ethiopia and Tanzania for more than 17 years and has completed more than 7,000 life-changing fistula operations on African women. Chairman of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Committee for Fistula and Genital Trauma, Dr Browning has been described as the world’s leading fistula surgeon. Andrew has done fistula surgery and trained local staff in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Somaliland, South Sudan, Togo, Chad, Sierra Leone, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. He is often described as the most accomplished fistula surgeon in the world, and the most difficult cases are referred to him, and cases which have not been successfully treated are sent to him for treatment, (or he goes to them).

At the end of 2017, after 17 years in Africa, Dr Browning and his family moved back to Australia so his two boys could undertake schooling. But he continues to travel to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan and Nepal four or five times a year for three weeks each time, overseeing hospitals and training. Dr Browning was given honorary membership to the Royal Australian and NZ College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 2016. So far, Dr Browning has established three maternity hospitals and networks that the Barbara May Foundation supports and runs and have so far delivered around 100,000 women for free, but there is still much to do.

Given there are around two million women with fistula and around 300,000 women dying in labour each year in Africa, the need is great for maternity hospitals as well as facilities for the operation on obstetric fistula patients.
In closing, we want to acknowledge Dr Andrew Browning, the real hero in this plan for the Phaedra Fistula Hospital in Tanzania.

  • You can read more about this wonderful ministry here: https://fistulafoundation.org/country/tanzania/