4/25/2019 Peter Durantine

F&M’s 2019 Commencement Speaker Found Her Calling in Africa

She went to medical school, fortified with a biology and psychology degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and found her profession as a surgeon. She returned to her home in Ethiopia, and realized her calling, helping women in poor countries achieve optimal health care. 

Dr. Rahel Nardos ’97 will share her story about the people who mentored her and the educational opportunities afforded her when she addresses F&M’s 2019 graduates for the College’s 232nd Commencement on May 11.  

“Those early experiences were critical in shaping who I became,” said Nardos, director of global health for Oregon Health & Science University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The big-picture message for me is that your professional life evolves and changes all the time.” 

  • Dr. Rahel Nardos, left, founded Footsteps to Healing, a global women’s health initiative that provides surgical services to rural Ethiopian women with pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence. Dr. Rahel Nardos, left, founded Footsteps to Healing, a global women’s health initiative that provides surgical services to rural Ethiopian women with pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence. Image Credit: Joni Kabana

The Commencement ceremonies also include the awarding of an honorary degree to Bebe Miller, a veteran choreographer and dancer. 

After graduating from The Ohio State University with a degree in dance, Miller danced professionally for decades, earning numerous awards and fellowships. She formed her own dance company in 1984, serving as its artistic director with “an interest in finding a physical language for the human condition.” She returned to her alma mater in 2000 and taught there for 17 years, retiring as distinguished professor of dance in the College of Arts and Humanities.

Nardos was born and raised in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, at the time a communist country, and attended an international high school run by Americans. There, her chemistry teacher directed her to F&M, where she believed Nardos would thrive. 

“Certain critical people like mentors come into your life, change your trajectory, and then they go away,” Nardos said. “It’s pretty amazing. It kind of shapes where you go next. Seeking those opportunities and those people is key to being open to ideas.” 

One mentor was F&M Professor of Psychology Michael Penn, who invited the undergraduate to write a health-issue book with him. They co-authored “Overcoming Violence Against Women and Girls: The International Campaign to Eradicate a Worldwide Problem,” published in 2003.

“It just opened my eyes about women’s issues in general, but specifically women’s health issues,” Nardos said. “I wanted to make a difference in this particular area, and I didn’t know which way was the best way to go about it.”    

Between F&M and Yale University’s School of Medicine, she spent a couple of years deciding how to make a difference in women’s issues. Her thinking eventually evolved from neuroscience researcher to medicine. 

“I like the one-on-one interactions with people and making a difference right away instead of further down the line,” Nardos said. At Yale, she decided on obstetrics and gynecology, and found a passion for surgery: “I like working with my hands.”

During residency, her mentor, L. Lewis Wall, a medical doctor and social anthropology scholar, encouraged her to consider urogynecology, a surgical subspecialty that addresses problems associated with the dysfunction of a woman’s pelvic floor and bladder. In countries like Ethiopia, the availability of such procedures was rare, if non-existent.

“He encouraged me to go and spend time there, to learn about the system and what the needs are, and to build relationships,” Nardos said. 

She spent a year at Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, a large hospital system in Addis Ababa, dedicated to the care of women with obstetric fistula, a trauma to bladder and bowels, the result of obstructed labor from lack of access to health care providers for labor and delivery. This causes women to leak urine continuously, leading to social isolation. 

“It’s a very devastating condition,” Nardos said. “I think for me spending a year there, working at the hospital, learning about the sociocultural factors that lead to health disparities in women, started my whole professional career in global health.”

She returned to the U.S. and received fellowship training in Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Pelvic Surgery at OHSU. There, she learned to care for women with disorders caused by childbirth and aging such as incontinence, prolapse and other pelvic floor and bladder disorders. 

Nardos’ dedication impressed Wall, her mentor and founder of the Worldwide Fistula Fund. He invited her to join the organization and in 2017, she was elected WFF’s secretary.

At OHSU, she founded Footsteps to Healing, a global women’s health initiative that provides surgical services to rural Ethiopian women with pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence. Her organization partners with WFF, Hamlin Fistula Hospital and Mekelle University in Ethiopia to provide pelvic floor surgical care. The partners also created a Pelvic Floor Training program for local clinicians, nurses and physical therapists so that they can provide continued care of women. 

“We’re focusing more on sustainability and care,” Nardos said of her organization. WFF provides support for Fistula and Pelvic floor Health projects in Burkina Faso, Niger, Uganda and Kenya. The care extends to rehabilitation, reintegration and economic empowerment of women. 

Under her leadership, Footsteps joined with WFF to increase access and capacity for care in sub-Saharan Africa by training local obstetrician-gynecologists. Their partnership supports the first urogynecology fellowship training program in Ethiopia in collaboration with Mekelle University and Hamlin Fistula Hospital. It also supports capacity building in critical care and hospital quality improvement.

“It’s one of those things that brings great fulfillment to me.,” Nardos said. “It’s funny, with global health people think of it as a humanitarian thing. I actually get a lot more back.”  

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