800px-Edna-adan-maternity-hospital-hargeisaThe Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Last Sunday evening I had the honor of meeting Edna Adan, the founder and director of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland.  Ms. Adan, 76, has had quite an amazing life-journey—both before and after she created this unique institution, which has treated thousands of patients and which trains new clinicians in one of the most medically deprived countries on the planet. She is often referred to as “the Muslim Mother Teresa.”

People come from all over the world to visit and contribute to this remarkable hospital. In fact, last week WVFC focused on Lauri Romanzi MD, a member of our own Medical Advisory Board who operates at Edna Adan several months a year during her rotation through developing countries as a specialist in “female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery.” Dr. Romanzi, who said she finds the work “invigorating,” was described by Ms. Adan as a tireless worker whom she has to bother relentlessly in order to get her to take enough down time when she is working at her hospital.

Ms. Adan herself seemed the very picture of vibrant good health and energy. She seemed at least 20 years younger than her age, standing for 90 minutes and vigorously presenting and answering questions about her work. It was clear that the thing she longed for most was “more”: more hours in the day, so that she could treat more patients, raise more money, and make more of a difference.

independence1Edna Adan celebrating Somaliland’s independence in 1991.

You may be surprised to learn that Ms. Adan did not begin this work until she was 61. She had quite a history before her founding of the hospital: Like 98 percent of women in her native Somalia, she was the victim of female genital mutilation, but she rose to the position of First Lady, Foreign Minister, and World Health Organization Adviser for Maternal and Child Health.

It was upon retiring from the last position that she decided to take action about the desperate conditions that women in her country have endured. She described how she traded in her many pairs of $800 shoes for one pair of rubber sandals and invested all her assets to build the institution that operates today in one of the neighborhoods in Hargeisa that was devasted by the civil war with Somalia.

I couldn’t help thinking of Dr. Romanzi as I listened to Ms. Adan’s story. In last week’s profile, she said, “I chose not to wait until retirement to do this work in developing nations,” and thus closed her New York practice two years ago at age 52. Though the early careers of both were successful and valuable, these two women, born so far apart, continued on a different path, only to arrive at a same destination. Both have found profound satisfaction in this meaningful and important work.

While most of us have serious practical barriers to changing careers before retirement—for example, taking large pay cuts or traveling far from our families—there may come a time when reinventing ourselves is not only possible, but necessary. Too many women feel that the road to new things is closed to them, especially as we age. The example of these two women is that not only can we dream . . . we can dream big.