Apr. 2, 2009
Using his CU engineering skills, alumnus targets tragic medical condition afflicting 2 million women
Of the countless health afflictions women in developing countries face, a condition called obstetric fistula may be among the most tragic.
Caused during prolonged labor, the condition causes a gap, or fistula, in the tissue separating a woman's bladder from her vagina, leading to incontinence and often lifelong humiliation and ostracism. Obstetric fistula virtually disappeared from the United States in 1895 and is surgically treatable in 90 percent of cases, but more than 2 million cases now are estimated in the developing world.
It's this disparity that moved Seth Cochran '00, M.Eng. '01, to devote himself full time to ending obstetric fistula worldwide. His nonprofit organization, Operation OF, is now being piloted in Uganda.
Cochran, who studied operations research (OR) at Cornell, was on a one-way track to worldly success as a financial manager at the company ADC Telecom in Berlin. He was in charge of a $160 million budget with seven factories across Europe, "making good coin," he said. But financial success couldn't make up for the feeling that he wasn't doing something that really mattered.
He'd always been involved in charitable work. While working in Berlin, Cochran built up ADC's corporate foundation activities in Germany, creating a structure he scaled to several other countries. These organizations have issued nearly $1 million in grants to local charities since their inception.
And in June 2007, Cochran created a fundraiser called Summit for Smiles in which he raised $40,000 for The Smile Train, a cleft palate and lip repair foundation, by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
In March 2008, Cochran quit his job to become what he calls a full-time social entrepreneur. A friend directed him to the issue of obstetric fistula, and Operation OF was born.
Cochran has spent the months since researching the condition and connecting with hospitals and other groups across Africa, particularly in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has built Operation OF as an organization that supports local groups not only in the logistics of treating patients, but also in helping the patients reintegrate into society using microcredit.
He hopes the model will spread worldwide. "By empowering local people to do the work, we can find a woman with fistula in the most remote village, get her to treatment, train her as an entrepreneur, and get her started in the business -- all for around $400," Cochran said. "This is a profound value given her state of mind when we find the woman and her subsequent potential to positively transform the same community that rejected her."
Cochran considers the OR education he received at Cornell critical to everything he does, including Operation OF.
"The training I got from Cornell really set my mind to always try to do things the best way you can," he said. "That is, using an analytical approach to maximize an objective within a given set of constraints -- classic OR thinking," he said.
In Uganda, Cochran is developing his pilot program in Soroti, working with Terrewode, a social-work organization, and in Kasese, where he is partnering with Kagando Mission Hospital.
For more information, visit http://operationof.org/OperationOF/OperationOF.html.