Fistula almost ruined my life, but I conquered it

Ruth Jebet Kiptoo

Ms Ruth Jebet Kiptoo during an interview at her home in Likoni, Mombasa County, on May 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Growing up, Ruth Jebet was a confident and bubbly girl, a crowd puller of sorts. She had great dreams about the future and worked hard in school to achieve them, just like all smart girls do.

After excelling in her KCPE, she secured a spot at St Alphonsus Girls in Tambach, Elgeyo-Marakwet County, to pursue her secondary education.

When she was in Form Two, she met man and they quickly become close friends. By the time Ruth was completing secondary school in 2006, their friendship had blossomed into a romantic relationship.

The following year, Ruth became pregnant. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out with her high school sweetheart and she was forced to move in with her elder sister.

“My family was not well off and my situation meant stretching the already strained budget even more. I moved in with my sister shortly before my due date. Around that time, we lost our dad and things got even tougher.”

Her sister didn’t have much but she shared the little she got from farming with Ruth. During her stay there, Ruth was unable to access prenatal services as the home was far from the local hospital.

“When the time came for me to have the baby, my sister called a local midwife. We couldn’t afford to go to hospital anyway.”

At 20, Ruth become a mother to a healthy baby boy. Her face beams as she narrates the experience of being a first time mum.

“I was so happy when I finally held my son. He was a healthy boy and the home birth went smoothly, or so I thought.”

Being a first time mum, Ruth didn’t know what to expect during and after delivery. Once the baby was out, she thought everything was alright. What Ruth didn’t know was that she had teared up during birth and developed obstetric fistula.

“It took me two weeks after the delivery to notice something was wrong. I couldn’t control the urge to go for a long call or pass gas. I remember wiping myself one day and to my horror, there were traces of stool coming from my vagina. Another time we were seated with my sister then I let out a fart. I was mortified.”

Before the incident with her sister, Ruth thought her symptoms were as a result of giving birth. She assumed all women went through the same shortly after delivery and that she would get past that stage. She decided not to tell anyone about what was happening until her secret came out that day.

“When it happened in front of my sister, she turned and asked me if I had been using the tummy belt she gave me. I told her I would start using it right away but even after using it for a week, my symptoms persisted.”

Short-lived marriage

Ruth’s self-esteem and confidence plummeted. She didn’t trust herself to be around people. She became a shadow of the girl everyone once knew. In her heart, she carried the weight of the strange illness.

After a few weeks, Ruth noticed she had a foul smell hanging around her. No matter how hard she tried to clean herself, the pungent odour of stool clung to her clothes, trailing her as she went about her daily chores.

“I stunk all the time. Whenever I coughed or laughed, stool and gas would leak. It happened frequently, so no matter how much I tried to wipe and stay clean, I couldn’t keep up. I avoided people and public places in general. My social life literally died and I preferred spending hours on end crying inside the house. At one point I even started having suicidal thoughts.”

During this isolation period, Ruth lost most of her friends. She didn’t want them to know what she was dealing with because she felt ashamed. The only thing that kept her going was her son.

“I was sad all the time but I managed to smile for my son, even with a heavy heart. Looking back, I realised I got depressed at some point but battled it silently.

“I asked myself so many questions on why this was happening. In my ignorance, I found comfort in assuming it was a normal condition that women pass through after delivering for the first time. I resolved to be strong for the sake of my son. I would cry the whole night and pretend to be okay during the day.”

Over time, Ruth learnt how to cope with the condition. As the child grew older, it became necessary for her to snap out of her sadness and fear so she could fend for her baby.

“As I busied myself with odd jobs here and there and mixed with people once again, a met a man. We struck a friendship that led to marriage. My husband didn’t know of my disease, that’s how good I had become in handling my symptoms.”

However, their blissful marriage was short-lived. Now under one roof, Ruth could no longer keep her secret.

“Our sex life was a nightmare. Sometimes, I would mess myself at night and he would storm out of the bedroom to go sleep in the sitting room. It remains my darkest moment in life.”

The marriage ended but Ruth was already pregnant and in 2015, she welcomed her second child, a girl. Although she delivered the baby in a hospital, the doctors didn’t notice her tear and she was discharged shortly after giving birth. This further reinforced her skewed belief that she was experiencing normal effects of giving birth.

A few weeks later Ruth secured a job in a security firm and they pay was quite attractive. She was able to take care of her two children and that meant the world for her.

“My job was mostly handling parcels and customer care. At first, everything was going well until my symptoms got in the way. The nature of the job meant I had to work closely with my colleagues and soon, they noticed my frequent farts. Of course I was teased and ridiculed and this started to affect my work morale.”

Ruth bumped into another job opportunity and she saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start.

“A few weeks into the job, a few of my colleagues started making fun of me. Even customers held their noses. I remember one time a colleague asked me, “Kwani wewe huna brakes?” (Why can’t you control yourself?). I was so ashamed and I quit the job a few days later.

Ruth went back to doing odd jobs, barely managing to feed her children.

Help, at last

In 2018, Ruth discovered she was pregnant with the third child. When it was time to have the baby, she went to a different hospital and this decision changed her life forever.

“During labour, I gathered some courage and talked to a nurse about what I had gone through since the birth of my first child. She was kind hearted and after listening to me patiently, she referred me to Women's Gynocare and Fistula Center located in Eldoret.”

After she was discharged, Ruth travelled to Eldoret where she was examined and found to have a fourth degree tear. A team of doctors led by Dr Hillary Mabeya performed the corrective surgery and it was successful.

“The healing process was not easy but I cannot complain. That surgery changed my life. For the first time in a decade, I didn’t leak, my innerwear stayed clean and dry. It felt like a miracle. With my dignity restored, I became more confident and happier. There was more laughter in the house, my children greatly appreciated it.”

It didn’t take long for Ruth to start dating again. She met a wonderful man who loved her and got married. Ruth and her husband recently welcomed their fourth baby.

“I must admit I was scared when I discovered that I was pregnant again. I feared it could undo what the surgery had repaired. However, the doctors reassured me that all would be well and I would deliver the child through caesarean section (CS). I prepared myself psychologically, knowing that this was the best way to go about it. The elective CS went well and we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I thank God for my supportive husband who helped me as I recovered from the CS wound. My encouragement to other women suffering from fistula is to seek help early. And to know they can still get children after a corrective surgery, through CS.”