Being in Ethiopia so long has given my team and I great inspiration. The courage of my patients never ceases to astound us all. And sometimes, we are able to help patients unexpectedly.
So when a boy needing a corneal transplant walked into my office on a Friday, I told him that I am not an eye doctor. But I took a photo and immediately sent it to my friend, Dr. Geoff Tabin, a renowned ophthalmologist in Utah. To my surprise, Geoff wrote back “Rick, I arrive Sunday with fresh corneas, happy to help.” 4 days later, this boy had a new cornea!
My long-term spine patient Fekadu is also blind. Both his spinal deformity and blindness are due to tuberculosis as a child. Fekadu has overcome a lot, has a degree in history from Addis Ababa University (the Harvard of Ethiopia), and managed to become a teacher. He asked me if I could get him a braille typewriter. I have no sources of typewriters, but I put that request into a commencement speech. Someone who heard the speech contacted me, and put me in touch with the wonderful group Volunteers of Vacaville, in California. VOV donated a typewriter, which we passed on to Fekadu. He is shown with a couple of our volunteers.
And now, let me introduce Tilahun. Tilahun is a boy from Alamata in Tigrai, who travelled hundreds of miles across the country to a Addis Ababa, for treatment of a terribly enlarged and painful tibia, just below his left knee. We arranged his amputation, and sent the tumor to the University of Rochester in New York for detailed pathologic analysis. The diagnosis: a cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma.
We found medicine, and arranged chemotherapy. Tilahun underwent 17 grueling cycles of chemotherapy. He vomited like hell, he lost his hair. We encouraged him as much as we could – we’d get him movie tickets – he planned his outings for the weeks where he would not be vomiting. His favorite movie is The Walk, which in 3D is simply spectacular.
Tilahun is now cancer-free. Now, Tilahun’s goal is to get an artificial leg, and return to school. We’ve put in the order for the prosthesis. I sat down with him the other day, to discuss his life. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.
Tilahun looked at me, and he burst out crying. I was wondering if he was worried about his cancer returning, or he was missing his family up in Tigrai, or concerned about missing school. But this kid astounded us all. He composed himself and said “I feel so bad when I see blind people here – they have such a difficult life. Our streets have holes they can fall into. I want to start an organization to help them.”
A few days later, my blind patient Abel came to see me. Abel comes from a remote area of Gojjam province, and was brought to Addis Ababa as a child, with promises to send him to a blind school. Instead, someone put him up to begging on the street, until Abel was able to escape. Abel overcame that, and returned to school. Several years ago, with assistance from a Hawaii Foundation, we brought him to the Colorado School for the Blind where he underwent intense training in blind skills. Abel is now studying social work at Addis Ababa University.
Abel was recently walking on the street here and fell into a hole, injuring his back. And he broke his cane. He came to me to get his back checked, then asked if I happened to have a cane. “Actually, I buy canes on Amazon.com. I always keep a couple at home,” I said, “blind people ask me for canes.”
I decided to introduce Tilahun and Abel, and let Tilahun deliver the cane. We arranged a meeting, and both Abel showed up at clinic last week. Abel was carrying a brass bell from Colorado, reading “Take Charge with Confidence.” Tilahun and Abel became instant friends. And Tilahu gave Abel a new cane. “Tilahun,” Abel said, “for me to get a new cane – it’s like a new car!” Thank you so much.”
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