Firehiwot still remembers the exact date she first came to our clinic—December 17, 2008. Similarly, she remembers exactly when she flew to Ghana for life-saving spine surgery (May 3, 2009) and when she started volunteering at our clinic (December 8, 2013).
A razor sharp memory is just one of Firehiwot’s many strengths. Now 23, she is finishing her 3rdyear at Addis Ababa University; next year she will graduate with a degree in social work. She speaks fluent English and is learning Amharic Sign Language and Portuguese. This summer, she will begin piano lessons. Firehiwot also excels socially—in her free time she watches movies, reads, plays pool, dances and goes clubbing with her many good friends from college. Her favorite TV channel is MTV.
But life hasn’t always been so easy for Firehiwot. She developed both polio and scoliosis soon after she was born. Her family sought help at various hospitals in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city and Firehiwot’s hometown, but none of the doctors she saw knew how to treat her worsening condition. She struggled with walking and serious back pain. Even sitting was painful, forcing Firehiwot to frequently change sitting positions at school.
In the midst of these health problems, Firehiwot’s mom died when she was 8, leaving her dad to raise Firehiwot and her younger brother singlehandedly. Her dad started managing a pool hall—to spend his days with people, rather than sitting at home depressed—and thankfully, he has always been able to support the family financially.
For the next several years, Firehiwot coped with her mom’s death, as her health continued to deteriorate. She took solace in the support of her good friends. Unlike many of our patients, she was rarely teased and was able to excel academically.
About 5 years ago, after another fruitless visit to a city hospital, one of our staff members recognized Firehiwot’s back problem. He suggested that she attend our clinic. A week later, Dr. Rick diagnosed her scoliosis and began planning to send her to Ghana for spine surgery.
Firehiwot left for Ghana about 4 years ago, in May 2009. She enjoyed her time there and bonded with the 13 other patients and two staff members on the trip. She even met the Ethiopian Ambassador to Ghana, who brought the patients injera, traditional Ethiopian sour bread, to tide them over from Ghanaian food (which Firehiwot was never very fond of). Firehiwot’s surgery was successful, and it took her about two weeks to recover. Soon after, she headed back home to start school, after spending most of her summer in Ghana.
Now Firehiwot is doing great. By her account, she has hardly had any back pain since her surgery. Despite her lingering walking problems—she mostly struggles with stairs and public transportation—Firehiwot brags that she is still able to dance. She even has plans to take up salsa dancing!
Firehiwot started volunteering with us over six months ago and is now an integral part of our staff. She helps with English translation, registering new patients and performing lung function tests on new spine patients. Most importantly, she helps counsel patients with serious social problems— orphans who have nowhere to live, patients ostracized or abandoned by family members, and others who just want someone to talk to. She also speaks sign language with a few of our deaf patients and jokes that she’d practice her Portuguese if we had any patients who spoke the language. The summer, she is also volunteering as a social worker with a local NGO.
Firehiwot is driven by a desire to help people and give back. As a successful woman who has overcome two potentially devastating illnesses, she is a role model to our younger patients, many of whom cannot even imagine attending university. Firehiwot shares her experience with patients going abroad for surgery, easing their fears and explaining what to expect. But her story also has a broader significance: she is a former patient who is not only healthy, but who is using her new chance at life to contribute to society and help others.