War zone surgeon ‘humbled’ by women’s health award

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A surgeon who has “changed hundreds of women's lives” in war zones and developing countries has been recognised with a prestigious award by the Australian Medical Association (AMA).

Professor Judith Goh, a urogynaecologist at Brisbane's Greenslopes Private Hospital, has been named the AMA's 2018 Woman in Medicine.

“It’s very humbling and it’s a great privilege,” she said. “Hopefully this will highlight the importance of women’s health and maternal health not just in Australia, but around the world.”

The AMA Woman in Medicine award recognises major contributions to the medical profession through ongoing commitment to quality care, research, public health projects, or improving the availability and accessibility of education and training for women.

Since 1995, Prof Goh has spent around three months every year training doctors in Asia and Africa how to treat vesico-vaginal fistula – a condition caused by prolonged childbirth and violent sex attacks.

Outgoing AMA president Michael Gannon said Prof Goh and her team of professionals brave political unrest while performing surgery in challenging environments. Their patients often have emotional and social trauma caused by war, rape, domestic violence, poverty, shame and grief.

“Her work has changed lives for the better for hundreds of affected women, correcting their often long-standing and preventable obstetric trauma, including vesico-vaginal and recto-vaginal fistulae, with the minimum of overhead costs to maximise the reach of her services,” Dr Gannon added.

Such fistulae – forced passageways – can cause involuntary leakage of urine and faeces, resulting in both internal infections and social hardship, as the women are shunned in their communities.

A world-renowned surgeon who was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2012, Prof Goh is backed for her twin projects in the two continents by the Health and Development Aid Abroad charity.

She has volunteered in countries including Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, while Myanmar is on her next itinerary.

Prof Goh said many women she has treated face social stigma after delivering stillborn babies.

“In some places it is seen as a failure. There is even violence against them in some communities. We are building a community where lot of women can come together and feel supported.

“In our country we no longer really say ‘mother and child are well’ after a baby is born. It’s taken for granted, so the first question is 'how much did the baby weigh'. But there are so many places in the world where this cannot be taken for granted,” she said.

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