Profile in courage: Messay

SP Mesay Habtamu 14- 7We all love meeting some of the most courageous young people on the planet. Look at  Messai, a 16 year old.

Messay is from Fiche, about 4 hours from Addis Ababa. His parents died when he was 4 years old. Neighbors took him in. They were farmers with 8 children. They permitted him to go to school. But they treated him like a servant. They fed him worse food than their own kids. The kids did not treat him like a brother. But he was alive, and he was surviving. However, at age 10, he developed shaking chills, followed by severe back pain. His spine began deforming. He was not treated.

His host family later told him that they did not want him in school – he had to work full-time attending to their animals. Determined to be educated, a few years ago he moved to the town of Fiche – a 3 ½ hour walk, followed by a 90 minute car ride from his village. Messay’s friend from his village had moved there, living alone in a rented room and attend 9th grade. It is not uncommon for dedicated Ethiopian students to leave home at an early age like this in order to get educated.

In Fiche, he met a shoe shine boy and rented his box for 5 birr/day (25 cents US) when it was not being used. He could make 50 birr ($2.50) on a good day. His diet depended on his success at shoe shining.

But his spine continued to deform, and Messay decided to come to Addis Ababa to seek medical care. He had saved 300 birr ($15). Using his savings, he got on a bus heading to the capital. He got off the bus when it stopped in Akaki outside Addis Ababa.

He met someone with a pickup truck and slept inside the truck his first night. The following day, he met a taxi driver and helped him wash the taxi. As they were washing, Messay told him about his life. He slept inside the taxi for a while.

Eventually, the taxi driver invited him to share his house with him – Messai paid 200 birr a month ($10) to sleep on an empty sack a dirt floor. He returned to his occupation of shining shoes again, often making over $1 per day. (UNICEF data shows that 31% of Ethiopians live on less than the international poverty line,  $1.25 daily).

Messay registered to start school school – 6th grade. After school started, the school director met the students and asked if anyone had special problems. Mesay pointed out that he had no family, no place to live, and no notebooks. A local woman, a recent widow, heard about him and took him into her home. She felt that if she took an orphan into her home, it would somehow benefit her late husband’s soul. She purchased clothes for him. His teachers uniformly admired his courage. The brother of his teacher was designated legal guardian.

Messay went to a local health center, seeking care for his deforming spine. He was referred to the university hospital and sent to CURE Hospital, a Christian orthopedic facility, which referred him to our clinic.

We evaluated him and immediately started TB treatment. We  funded his travel for every visit to us.

We determined that ithout surgery, he had a very high risk of paralysis: In our evaluation system, he was rated “1+”, our most urgent designation for spine care.

Recently we drove him to the airport early one morning and he got on the plane – by himself –  to fly to FOCOS Hospital in Accra. We asked him how he felt: “Now I realize I am not alone and for the first time, I have hope that I can be healed and have a future.”

Messay will spend months in traction before surgery. Messay’s goal after surgery: to become a doctor. We’d love to see this happen.

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Hanan – now smiling!

Hanan is a 13 year-old orphan from Kibre Mengist in the north Oromia, 280 miles from Addis Ababa. She and her two younger sisters live with their 24 year-old unmarried uncle, ShewaAli, a construction worker. Their father died repelling the Eritrean invasion 11 years ago, and their mom died of tuberculosis 4 years ago.

Her uncle and guardian was also an orphan by age 11, raised by his grandmother. He worked as a laborer every day after school to support his family. He is now the devoted guardian of Hanan and her siblings. He told us: “I believe in God. I can’t abandon my sister’s children.”

Hanan finished 3rd grade at the top of her class; she loved school, playing jump rope, and Akukulu (Ethiopian hide-and-seek) with her sisters. Two years ago, however, everything changed: she became increasingly fatigued and stopped going to school, unable to make the 20-minute walk. She stopped observing the Moslem fast of Ramadan because of her weakness. Her personality changed – she was happy before, but after, she stopped smiling and angered easily. Doctors at the university hospital recommended surgery, but were unable to help. Someone referred her to us, and Dr. Rick diagnosed tight mitral stenosis (an area of .6 cm2 – normal is 4 cm2).

This September, we sent Hanan along with a group of 17 cardiac patients to Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences in Cochin, India, where the cardiac team performed a successful balloon procedure to open her valve. Her valve area has more than doubled. She is filled with energy. She is now back home. She has a big smile on her face, and told us: “I feel great!” Hanan is excited to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a cardiologist.

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Before surgery

Hanan now smiling

After surgery

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Hanan with her uncle

Repairing Ethiopian Hearts in India

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We now have seventeen patients in India undergoing heart procedures by Dr. Krishna at the  AIMS – Amrita Hospital in Cochin, India. We are not fully funded and would greatly appreciate  contributions – from small gifts to full sponsorships of $5,000 per child. Detailed information is  available on each patient.

Click here for detailed information about each patient.

Click here to donate. Donations are tax-deductible and contribute directly to JDC’s Heart and Spine Project.

Thank you!

Rick Hodes, MD and the JDC-Ethiopia Heart and Spine Team

(Contact Us: ethiopianhearts@gmail.com.)

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Look at Tulu – before and after surgery

Tulu was in traction for 3 months in Ghana, then had surgery. Look at the
difference, compared with his dad now. And he feels great!

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A New Life for Bizuayehu

Bizuayehu (“I see a lot”) is a remarkable and courageous 23 year old woman from Mojo, about an hour outside of Addis Ababa. Her mother noticed that her spine was deforming when she was a baby. She took her to 2 hospitals, without any help.

As her spine deformed, in school she was shunned by other kids, and called hunchback (“gobata,”) a terrible insult. Her parents died when she was 14, and her sisters also gave her very little support. Despite this, she was able to graduate from high school and study computers for 3 years. Unable to find work, she lived in a mud hut, read a lot, and found inspiration in her Christian faith.

About a year ago, when her sister left to work in Dubai, Bizuayehu took a bus to Addis Ababa seeking help. A kind person offered her support and a place to live, and she was evaluated in our spine program.

We found a very complex deformity – her spine had a U-turn and an angle of over 150 degees. Moreover, her spinal cord was pierced by a piece of bone: technically, her MRI found scoliosis plus diastematomyelia, lipoma, and tethered spinal cord.

She travelled to Ghana in late 2013. She was put into traction for several months: Dr. Rick visited and took these photos. Later in Ghana, she underwent surgery which involved fusing from the 5th thoracic vertebra (T5) to the pelvis, as well as complete removal of her first lumbar vertebra (L1). She had 5 rods and 18 screws put into her spine. She had a slow recovery, complicated by temporary weakness in her left leg.

She will now return home, look for work, and try her best to make friends, find a job, and rebuild her life. Bizuayehu, we salute your courage!

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Organizing spine surgery is like conducting an orchestra

At a high level, it can feel that way! There are multiple players, and everyone has an important part to play. Recently, this worked superbly well, and we were able to really help our patient Tizita.

Tizita was in high school a couple of years ago, and happened to drop a book. She bent down to pick up the book, and the librarian noted her twisted spine. The librarian is the father of one of our patients, and suggested that she visit us.

TizitaTTizita has had a difficult life, with a progressively twisting spine. Plus her family had its share of problems as well. Tizita’s Christian faith has been a source of comfort, and she constantly tells herself “God has a plan.” She sings in her church choir. She writes poetry. For years, when shopping for clothes, she would ask her mom “does it match me?” She was really saying “Does it emphasize my spinal deformity?”

Tizita’s mom advised her to go to nursing school. Tizita considered this, but then chose surveying!

We evaluated Tizita, and diagnosed scoliosis, with a double curve – 108 degrees on top, 95 degrees on the lower half of her spine. In America, a single curve of 50 degrees gets appropriate surgery.

Over a year ago, Dr. Rick was contacted by Diane Curley, a Long Island nurse who is Director of Clinical Resources at Catholic Health Services and a volunteer with Operation Hearts and Home, a Long Island based charity dedicated to improving the lives of children in Ethiopia and Ukraine. Diane thought that Long Island doctors could help our patients. She introduced us to “The Long Island Spine Specialists,” who expressed interest in helping our patients. Rick, a native of Long Island himself, met with them at their Commack, NY headquarters. After long email exchanges, they chose Tizita to operate on, at no cost.

Earlier this year, Tizita flew to Long Island and was housed by Mae, the administrator of the group. Dr. Laurence Mermelstein and his partner, Dr. Hargovind DeWal operated at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip. They were assisted by plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Michael Dobryansky, of the Long Island Plastic Surgery Group. Medical device company Medtronic donated the implants, and SMS donated the intra-operative spine monitoring.

In a long day of surgery in May, the doctors put in 2 rods and 24 screws. Tizita recovered well and even had a “ladies night out,” where 10 women went by limo into Manhattan to an Ethiopian restaurant. Tizita has returned back home to Ethiopia, healing and looking forward to resuming her surveying studies after the summer rains.

All of us want to thank Dr. Mermelstein and everyone in Long Island who helped Tizita. Dr. Rick commented “As a native of Long Island, it makes me especially proud that Long Island folks have come through. Not only did they provide medical care, they opened their homes and their hearts.” Long Island – we love you!

 

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How Facebook saved a boy’s life

all smilesThank YOU, Mark Zuckerberg! Let me tell you how you are saving the life of Befekadu, a 24 year old Ethiopian orphan.

Befekadu is simply an amazing fellow. He has had a progressive, severe spinal deformity (scoliosis) since he was a small boy. Several doctors told him there was no treatment available.

At the age of 15, when he was in 8th grade, both parents died. This left him as the sole support of his sisters – Lamerot, 8, and Ayalnesh, 6. Befekadu stayed in school, but worked full-time as a timekeeper and storekeeper for a local construction enterprise. Till this day they live in a simple rented house with dirt floors and 2 light bulbs, paying 25 US cents rent per month.

Befekadu graduated in the top 20% of his high school, then moved to Addis Ababa and studied public administration at Addis Ababa University, the Harvard of Ethiopia! And all this time, he has been the sole support of his sisters.

On Jan 30, 2010, Dr. Rick was walking in the street near Addis Ababa university and saw Befekadu walking on the roadside. He saw Befekadu’s spinal deformity and told him “I think I can change your life,” and asked him to join us in clinic. In clinic we diagnosed a spinal angle over 180 degrees, and a 75% reduction in lung function. At the time, we were not yet using long-term traction, and someone else in the room told Befekadu that he was too-far gone for surgery. He did not return for follow-up.

Recently, we found Befekadu’s medical records and realized that he’d be a great candidate for traction. But none of his phone numbers we had were working. What could we do – this was a life-and-death situation. Reading his social history, we noted that he was a university student. We turned to Facebook, and within an hour, had located his Facebook page! We found that Befekadu lives in a town north of Addis Ababa and works in a government transport office. We sent him a message, and within days, he was in our office for reevaluation.

He’ll be departing this summer for Ghana for several months of traction, followed by corrective surgery. He is now busy saving money to support his sisters in his absence from Ethiopia, which could be up to 8 months. And he said to us today “Without Facebook, I’d be without hope.” So, Mark Zuckerberg – thank you for Facebook!

Photos and story used with full permission.

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