Alumni Profile: Jenny Chott Hannibal

Conducting training in French for surgeons in Madagascar was not on her radar screen when Jenny Chott Hannibal ’96 decided to major in French and Mathematics. Neither were women in Malawi, Madagascar, and Mauritania who can’t afford the surgeries they need.

Jenny Chott Hannibal came to Seattle University to major in Mathematics because it came easy to her. 

Life-changing event #1: Hannibal decided to participate in the study abroad program in Grenoble led by French Professor Paul Milan. She became fast friends with her home stay French family, traveling with them to Morocco and gaining greater understanding of peoples and cultures.

“I was without my family and having to speak a foreign language day and night,” she said. “Professor Milan’s approach to educating us–when someone invites you to do something you’ve never done before, you should always say yes–was huge for me as a 20-year-old.”

She added French as a major, and a work-study position at Seattle’s Treehouse led to a permanent job with a private, local foundation supporting more than 200 organizations around the world. Hannibal soon found herself translating, planning events, and managing projects at home and abroad. Offered the opportunity to go to Mozambique to report back on a children’s vaccine program, she had much more than a cross-cultural experience.

Life-changing event #2: “You can read about Africa in National Geographic, but when you witness the challenges of healthcare access, it’s life-altering,” she said recently from her home in Ann Arbor, MI. “The logistics of providing health care in the poorest parts of Africa and seeing the poverty there are almost beyond comprehension.”

After returning to Seattle, Hannibal first volunteered for and then was hired by VillageReach, a global healthcare nonprofit focused on bringing “live-saving innovations to scale and sustainability” in rural and low-income areas around the world. She traveled to England for the invitation-only Skoll World Forum annual conference for nonprofits that address the world's most pressing problems. A chance meeting with a fellow delegate led to an online introduction to Seth Cochran, founder of Operation Fistula.

In many countries, poor women with no access to adequate health care develop fistula, a hole, caused by prolonged labor without medical attention. The result is incessant leaking of urine which cracks the skin, causes infections, and smells bad. Limiting fluid intake to lessen the leaking may result in severe dehydration and kidney failure. A woman with fistula is often ostracized by her community or abandoned by her husband and family. A fistula can be surgically repaired, but there are very few doctors who perform the surgery.

Life-changing event #3: Hired by Cochran, Hannibal soon found herself going to camp last July, not a traditional summer camp, but a camp in Madagascar where she trained 14 local surgeons on the nonprofit’s funding and reporting methods for fistula repair. The surgeries, paid by Operation Fistula, are free for the women, who stay at the hospital or health center for 2 weeks after.

“When we talk health centers in these very poor areas, we are looking at buildings with no windows and no doors,” she said. “I actually kicked a chicken out of a room once. They are doing the best they can with the resources they have, but this is charity reimagined. We helped 214 women in one month, and we support 14 local surgeons who continue to repair fistula and change lives.”

Hannibal is back in Ann Arbor and, having completed a Master in Library Science, works part time developing library programs for middle school children while continuing to work for Operation Fistula. She keeps in touch with her Grenoble home stay family and Professor Milan.

“He taught me to open myself up to new experiences,” she said. “These invitations– to meet some guy focused on fistula surgeries –these invitations just happened, and I learned to say yes.”

Posted March 31, 2015