Tesfaye was born in the Gojam region of Ethiopia to farmer parents. He grew up in a one-room, thatched roof, mud hut, which he shared with parents, four brothers and one sister. His mother and father farmed grains, mostly tef and barley.
About nine years ago Tesfaye’s father died; leaving his mother to farm and care for the five children herself. Several years after his father’s death Tesfaye decided to come to Addis Ababa with his oldest brother to seek medical care for his misshapen spine. His back problem began when he was eight years old, a result of untreated spinal tuberculosis. Growing up, his family took him to the local healer who blessed him with curative Holy Water, but the pain and deformity did not improve. By the time he was a teenager the pain was so acute that he decided to leave his village and travel to Addis Ababa in hope of treatment. Tesfaye traveled three days by bus with his brother, neither of whom spoke any Amharic, the national language and dominant language in the capital city. Tesfaye and his family are from the Agow tribe, a small population in the north of the country that speaks their own language, known as Agaw.
They arrived at the bus station in the large market area, the Mercato, and went immediately to Black Lion Hospital, where the hospital staff told him they could not treat him, promptly sending him and his brother away. Talking to some street children Tesfaye and his brother heard that the Alert Leprosy Hospital may be able to help him. They went eagerly, but were turned away for a second time.
The brothers rented a small room for 1 birr per day, about 0.10 USD and stayed in the capital hoping for a miracle. One day a woman stopped them on the street and asked Tesfaye what was wrong with his back. He told her that he had no idea but that he was in a lot of pain and was trying to find treatment but no one was helping. She told him that the Mother Theresa Mission may be able to help him and described directions to the mission. Tesfaye went to the mission early the next morning and the nuns admitted him swiftly and without hesitation.
For two months Tesfaye lived at the mission where he received tuberculosis treatment. After two months he was discharged from the mission but returned each day for the next six months to complete his eight-month TB treatment. After leaving the mission Tesfaye shared a room with his brother who had begun work as a day laborer in order to stay in Addis with Tesfaye. To contribute to his brother’s earnings Tesfaye began pushing a wheelbarrow filled with various novelty items, such as BIC pens, Kleenex travel packs, sunglasses and chewing gum. He peddled—almost literally—his wares around the large market place earning between 5-10 birr per day, about 0.50-1.00 USD. Several months later Tesfaye contracted scabies, likely a result of squalid living conditions, and went to the mission to ask the nuns for treatment. He was given the proper medication and was on his way out of the compound when another nun stopped him and asked him if he knew a Dr. Rick. Tesfaye replied that he did not know any doctors, especially not a faranje—or white—one. The sister told him to return the following Saturday to meet Dr. Rick, who, she explained, helped Ethiopians with bad spines. Tesfaye came early Saturday morning and waited patiently for his turn to meet with Dr. Rick, during his usual Saturday morning clinic.
Dr. Rick not only accepted Tesfaye as a spine patient but also invited him to live in his home and send him to school. Six months later in 2007, Tesfaye traveled to Ghana with a group of eight other spine patients to undergo spine surgery performed by renowned Ghanaian surgeon Dr. Boachie. All eight other patients were operated on but Tesfaye’s case was too complicated and the anesthesiologist did not want to risk operating on him. Tesfaye returned from Ghana unchanged. Tesfaye traveled to Ghana two more times to no avail. He went with each new group of patients every six months for the next year, still no anesthesiologist wanted to take the risk. Finally, disheartened, he gave up and resigned himself to the fate of living his life with a back shaped like a Brontosaur or Quasimodo.
In the world of Rick’s house, Tesfaye is everyone’s favorite person, if he were to run for office, it most certainly be a landslide victory. Tesfaye is kind, patient and helpful. He is always doing his homework or helping the younger children with theirs. In anticipation of his trip to Canada Tesfaye has been diligently attending English class four days a week to supplement his 5th grade curriculum. I asked Tesfaye what he is most excited and nervous about for his trip. He answered that he is most nervous about people making fun of his back and that he is most excited about being with people who show him love.
Last fall I took a social history of each of the children living in Rick’s house, Tesfaye politely told me, “I do not want to talk about my history until I know what the ending will be, I still hope thanks to God, and Dr. Rick, that my back may be healed.” Now, we pray, that time has come, and so, Tesfaye has shared his story with me. We all look forward to discovering the end of the story. I know he will live happily ever after.
– Chloe Malle, Volunteer to Dr. Rick Hodes