Meet Habtamu, the aspiring Athlete

Habtamu-rick-hodes-ethiopian-spine-patient-1Let me introduce our latest aspiring athlete: Habtamu, 18. Habtamu hails from a village called Tilili in Gojjam Province, about 440 km from Addis Ababa. His dad is a farmer, growing teff, wheat, and corn. Mom cared for her 10 kids–Habtamu is #7. Both parents are illiterate. Ethnically, Habtamu is a mix of 2 groups, Amhara and Agau. “Pure Ethiopian,” he says with pride.

They live in a 1-room mud hut with a corrugated aluminum (“korkoro”) roof. They had no electricity but recently invested $105 in a solar system, which gives them 1 small light bulb at night.

Habtamu had a bad back since he was born. He reports he was paralyzed for about a year when he was 4 years old. His family took him to the “tsebel,” or holy water site. Not one, but 5 different sites, and not once, but 95 times! They would put holy mud (“eminet”) onto his hands, and holy water on his body. Eventually, he started walking again.

He went to school, but students were cruel, separating him and teasing him about his back. He felt bad about himself, and lonely. A couple of boys befriended him. And despite his situation, he studied hard and finished 10th grade (the basic high school level) in good stead.

One day someone told the family that there was treatment for him in Addis Ababa. “You’ll find Dr. Rick in a children’s hospital,” he was told. It was not so easy – the guards told them I had been there in the past. They tracked us down in the basement of a city hospital.

“I had never been to a doctor in my life, but everyone said there is no treatment for you. After the first visit, I had some hope, for the first time,” he explained.

“But Dr. Rick explained that my problem was very severe – I had a ALPHA deformity – my spine was displaced. In Amharic we call it a NEH deformity. And that this is very difficult to operate on. Some people do well – but some become paralyzed.”

“I asked what are my chances of a good life without surgery.” Dr. Rick explained “We think that everyone with your deformity will end up paralyzed at some point. We have patients like you who were well… until they woke up paralyzed one day.”

“I wanted to have a life. And my increasing shortness of breath was affecting me already. So I got a passport, and then I went with 20 others to FOCOS Hospital in Ghana. It was my first time to be with other kids like me. We were like a big family. Really. We love each other.”

“I was in traction for 5 months. Then I had surgery. (He had fusion from T1-L1, with removal of vertebrae (VCR), ended up with 4 rods, 19 screws, and a cage). After surgery I was completely paralyzed – could not feel my legs, could not walk, could not control my urine or stool.”

I started physical therapy, hours every day. I learned to wheel myself in a wheelchair. After 5 months I could control my urine and stool. And I started getting feeling back to my legs.

I returned to Ethiopia and someone offered me a place to live in the capital. A house on 1 level. I sit on the porch and walk slowly with a walker, back and forth, 100 times a day.

I wear a brace on 1 leg. Every step is difficult. But I am learning to walk again. This week I am faster than last week.

I want to return to school. I want to have my own store in my village.

He met a patient from S. Sudan in transit to Ghana for surgery. What advice do you have for Banak”?

“Be friends with everyone and they will be friends with you. Don’t be afraid, don’t be shy. And be happy. This is your chance to improve your life. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.”