Akewak walked into our clinic at our JDC SPINE PROGRAM a few years ago at the age of 12, and said to us, in English “I need your help, I have a bad back.” “That’s what we’re here for,” Dr. Rick replied with a smile.
Akewak had a lumbar kyphosis – a congenital fusion of several bones in his lumbar spine. It’s quite rare, but we see it every year. On exam he also had unequal shoulder blades, he was born without a thumb, and he was born with an extra blood vessel in the heart which normally closes at birth, a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus). We diagnosed a condition called VACTERL syndrome. At the age of 5, he had heart surgery to close the PDA. After the surgery, he was still weaker than his friends, but played still attempted to play sports with them.
It all seemed to make sense. But when Dr. Rick carefully examined Akewak with a stethoscope, he thought that he heard a PDA. He said to his
assistant “I have no idea what I’m listening to – it sounds like a PDA, but that’s been closed.” Akewak was referred to the best echo doctor in Ethiopia. He returned with an astounding result: indeed, he had a huge PDA (13 mm), plus “inadvertent ligation of the left pulmonary artery.” When doctors went to cut the PDA, they cut the pulmonary artery instead! Akewak was living on 1 lung. He had potentially dangerously high blood pressure in his lungs. It might even be too late to operate! And what might be done? We could only speculate.
Akewak walked into our office thinking that his back was his main problem. Dr. Rick sat down with Akewak’s parents and explained that his main problem right now is his heart – botched surgery truly threatened his life. His father, a policeman, said “Doctor, we are Christians. We believe God will help.”
We contacted physicians all over the world on his behalf. Children’s Hospital of Colorado accepted him for free treatment. We brought him to Denver. After intensive testing, doctors found that he was operable. After great discussion, surgeons decided on a single surgery. They removed the PDA, and then, in a great surgical feat, constructed a new pulmonary artery out of the pericardium (outside lining of the heart). A separate team stabilized his spine. He lived with a wonderful host family. And attended the Jewish Dayschool. And he gave the first gift at a major fundraising event.
Akewak returned to Ethiopia to heal. But his spine deformity was greatly increasing. Later, he was sent to the FOCOS Hospital in Ghana. In a delicate 6.5 hour operation, Dr. Boachie completely removed 3 vertebrae (L1-L3) and instrumented T7-S1.
Akewak is now back in Ethiopia. His heart is healthy. His spine is straight. Now at the top of his high school class. Dr. Rick recently told Akewak “Often in life, people never get a second chance. God has given you two new chances. Do something great with your life.”
Akewak’s name means “Gift of God” in his Oromo language. “My life is amazing,” he replied, “I will become a doctor.”
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