August 2016 | Lúnasa 2016

Remembering Sister Ann Ward (1929 - 2016)

Tue, 9 August 16 11:25

Pioneering Obstetrician and Missionary Nun

It is with sadness that we note the recent death of Sister Ann Ward (UCD Medicine 1957), a pioneering obstetrician and missionary nun who was internationally acclaimed for her work in obstetric fistula repair. 

Born in April 1929 in Lifford, Co. Donegal, the youngest of three children of Molly and PJ Ward, Ann Ward attended primary school in Raphoe before completing her secondary education at St Louis Convent, Monaghan. She then joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary and enrolled at University College Dublin, to study medicine in 1951, graduating in 1957.  Following post-graduate study at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, she became a member and later a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.  She served with the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Africa from 1959 until failing health forced her retirement in 2006.  After a long and distinguished medical missionary career at St Luke’s Hospital in Nigeria where she treated over 3,000 women with obstetric fistulae, Sister Ward retired and returned to Ireland in 2006.

Fistulae are relatively common in countries such as Nigeria and Ethiopia and commonly result from prolonged labour in first pregnancies in places where there is little or no medical care or in circumstances where young women become pregnant before their bodies are fully developed.  In the case of vesico-vaginal fistula, the bladder and surrounding structures can become damaged or torn resulting in incontinence, infection, infertility and difficulty in walking.  The unborn child may die during pregnancy and there can be additional social cost to the mother if she is rejected by her husband.

Sister Ward developed a simplified surgical approach to fistulae, and coupled it with intense care in pre-operative preparation and post-operative care. She repaired more than 2,000 of such devastating pelvic injuries, working late into the night under primitive conditions.  Many more young women were operated on by fellow obstetricians who flew in from Europe, at Ward’s request, at the “camps” she set up for this purpose. These “visiting firemen” learned from Ward’s improved procedures, and thus benefited the wider community of women with obstructed pregnancies.

Surgical success was only the beginning. Ward knew that her young patients needed friendship and support – not pity – which had been their lot previously.  She insisted

“The arch-enemy of compassion is pity.  Pity puts distance between you and the person you are pitying. Compassion puts the two of you on the same level, enabling you to work together to change the situation, or at least to make it more bearable.”

During a distinguished career, Sister Ward received numerous honours and awards for her outstanding contribution to women’s health and was frequently invited to present at prestigious medical schools or international conferences or to demonstrate the surgical procedures which she pioneered.  However she bore these honour lightly and asked

“Please don’t write about me.  The focus needs to be placed on the women who suffer this terrible condition and on the services that need to be put in place to bring relief and proper treatment.”

When she was presented the UCD School of Medicine’s Distinguished Graduate’s Award, Sister Ward modestly noted

“If you found yourself in the same circumstances I work in, you would have done just as much as I have done.'

Unicef in Nigeria granted an award for her outstanding work in mother and child health and she was awarded an honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2004.  Although she valued her male colleagues, she was a strong advocate for more women becoming obstetricians.

“There are many women who can only confide their deepest and most sensitive feelings to another woman, who they feel will understand their emotions,”

she said when receiving an award from the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics in Copenhagen in 1977.

Sister Ward will be remembered as a pioneering obstetrician, a compassionate carer who transformed the lives of many women and as a modest missionary who dedicated her life to the care of others.  We extend our sincere condolences to her family, friends and colleagues.