By fixing spines, these doctors are saving children’s lives in rural Ethiopia

A team of surgeons from Israel fills a much-needed void in spinal care in the impoverished African country.

Mekelle is a town of almost 300,000 people in northern Ethiopia. The only hospital, Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, serves millions of people in Mekelle and the surrounding Tigray region. Some of its patients come from rural villages hundreds of miles away to receive care.

Sixteen-year-old Mebrat is one of those patients. Her spinal deformity had gotten so severe that she feared she’d be bent over at a 90-degree angle, and in terrible pain, for the rest of her life. If nothing was done, Mebrat’s condition would interfere with her lung function, potentially causing bouts of pneumonia.

She’s sought help for her condition for years, but Ayder Hospital does not have a regular spine surgeon, so she’d always been turned away. However, in recent months, Mebrat finally got the surgery she so desperately needed. It was all thanks to a team of surgeons, nurses and a physical therapist who traveled from Israel to Mekelle to perform spinal surgeries.


A Hadassah doctor examines a teenage girl with spinal deformities at Ayder Hospital.

A Hadassah doctor examines a teenage girl with spinal deformities at Ayder Hospital. (Photo: Hadassah Medical Organization)

As she recovered from having a titanium rod implanted into her back – which would gradually rotate and straighten her spine – Mebrat wanted to tell her parents how well the surgery had gone. Her brother-in-law, Girmay, assured her he would find someone close to her parents to travel by train or donkey to share the beautiful news. After a few months of physical therapy, Mebrat is now able to sit up straight, and she’s even grown a couple of inches taller. And she thinks her surgeons are a gift from above.

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A gift, maybe. But for the Israeli doctors, it’s more of a mission.

“Somewhere in my mind, I have always felt we need to share our expertise with the neediest populations,” says Dr. Josh Schroeder, a spinal surgeon from the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem who helped organize the trip. “When I was an intern, I volunteered in Africa. Now, as a trained surgeon, I have more to give.”


Hadassah doctors prep a patient for surgery at Ayder Hospital in Mekelle.

Hadassah doctors prep a patient for spinal surgery. (Photo: Hadassah Medical Organization)

All told, Schroeder and the rest of the team performed five life-saving surgeries, all on pediatric patients whose spinal deformities had the potential to become life-threatening. According to Barbara Sofer, a public relations director for the Hadassah organization, it’s the first time that scoliosis surgery has ever been successfully completed in Ethiopia.

In one unexpected case, a 21-year-old man who had suffered severe spinal injuries in a car crash was rushed to Ayder Hospital just in time for the Hadassah team’s first day. They were able to fuse his spine back together.


The medical outreach team, titled Hadassah Scoliosis Surgery and Education Campaign, is the first mission to Ethiopia to undertake complex spine surgery.

The medical outreach team, titled Hadassah Scoliosis Surgery and Education Campaign, is the first mission to Ethiopia to undertake complex spine surgery. (Photo: Hadassah Medical Organization)

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Each surgery took hours and required multiple pieces of equipment and tremendous manpower. In addition to Schroeder, the team consisted of Dr. Alon Moses, chairman of Hadassah’s Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease; Dr. Leon Kaplan, head of Hadassah’s Spine Unit; anesthesiologists Yuval Meroz and Galel Yakobi; spine fellow Dr. Hananel Shear-Yashuv; intern Nadav Moses; recovery nurse Tsheay (Orna) Tedesu-Solomon; operating room nurse Ammar Farhat; nurse Amir Mammon Shapira; nurse Reuven Gelfond; and neurophysiologist Sagi Gudes.


Orna Tedesu-Solomon, a nurse with Hadassah who traveled to Ethiopia to perform spinal surgeries.

Orna Tedesu-Solomon, a nurse with Hadassah who traveled to Ethiopia to perform spinal surgeries. (Photo: Hadassah Medical Organizationa)

“My life’s dream was to be a Hadassah nurse,” said Ethiopian-born Nurse Tedesu-Solomon, who speaks Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. She was in charge of post-operative recovery. “I am so proud to be able to come back to Ethiopia for the first time in 27 years as a nurse and to be part of the team that helps [these patients] have quality of life.”


Dr. Josh Schroeder visits a young patient in post-operative recovery.

A member of the Hadassah medical team visits a young patient in post-operative recovery. (Photo: Hadassah Medical Organization)

Want more stories like this? Listen to our inspiring podcast interview with a classical pianist and cancer patient at Hadassah Hospital.

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