‘Funny, you don’t seem Ethiopian,” says Helen, expressing the collective opinion of the local nurses gathering around Tsheay Orna Tadoses-Solomon, the nurse from Israel.
“How do you speak Amharic so well?” We’re in the hallway of Ayder Rehabilitation Hospital in the city of Mekelle in Tigay Region of Ethiopia, 783 kilometers north of Addis Ababa. Tadoses-Solomon, just called Orna in Israel, is deputy head nurse in the recovery room at Hadassah-University Medical Center on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
She was indeed born in Ethiopia. She’s back for the first time in 27 years as part of a mission to save children who need surgery to straighten their twisted spines. In addition to their pain and misery, these children are in danger of contracting fatal pneumonia. In this country of a hundred million people, there are no surgical teams that can do these complex repairs. The Hadassah team of medical professionals includes spine surgeons, anesthesiologists, a neurophysiologist to monitor the surgery, senior nurses and a physical therapist.
But Tadoses-Solomon is the only Amharic speaker.
Helen tries to define what’s so incongruous about her. It’s her body language. She walks and talks assertively, takes charge and gives orders. She makes eye contact with everyone.
“I guess my Ethiopian breeding has been impacted by Sabra chutzpah,” laughs Tadoses-Solomon.
SHE WAS born in Qwara, in remote northwestern Ethiopia, where the Jews missed Operation Moses in 1984. Her grandfather was among the first students in Ethiopia to learn Hebrew when Jacques Faitlovitch, a Polish Jew who studied at the Sorbonne, opened a Jewish school in 1923.
Her parents and their seven children relocated to Chilga, closer to the center of Jewish life in Gondar.
“We had to hide our Jewish identity and pretend we were going to visit an uncle in Gondar,” said Tadoses-Solomon.
They split into two groups, to continue the move to Addis Ababa. She, two sisters, their father and their brother went first in a truck carrying foodstuffs and sheep. The overloaded truck turned over on the mountainside.
Three passengers were killed.
Orna remained in a coma for a week.
When she woke up she asked if they were already in Israel. She couldn’t understand why her mother was weeping and the room was full of visitors. “They’d all come to say good-bye to me. No one thought I’d wake up and start talking.” After recovering in that hospital, she decided to become a nurse.
A year and a half later, they were sent ahead of the main group that became the covert Operation Solomon, which brought 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours.
She was 12, just in time to be a bat mitzva in Israel.
“It was such an ecstatic arrival and we all kissed the earth,” she recalls. “But we were puzzled. We thought all Jews were black.
My mother told me that she guessed Jews came in many colors.”
Two months after living in an absorption center, her parents were informed that the children would be better off in residential schools.
“When they came to take us, we cried as if it was a funeral. All the trauma – the accident, learning a new language, being separated from my parents – came together.
I became a rebel, getting in fistfights and running away from school.”
She was given the Hebrew name Edna, which she rejected. She would be “Orna” because Tsheay, her Amharic name, means “sunshine,” and the first syllable of Orna means “light.”
“Finally, in 10th grade, I took myself in hand. I realized rebelling wouldn’t help, and that I was learning a certain independence that I valued. I wrote down my goals to be achieved by age 40. I still wanted to be a nurse, to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree, to become an expert in intensive care, and to find a job in the famed Hadassah Hospital.”
In nursing training she had to learn the difference between aggressive and assertive.
“In Ethiopia, not looking someone in the eye was a way of showing respect. It’s just the opposite in Israel. I had to practice in the mirror.”
Orna was 16 years old. That was the year she met her husband-to-be, Dror Solomon, 12 years her senior, whom she scandalously agreed to marry without consulting her parents. He won her heart by promising never to stand in the way of her advancements.
SIXTEEN IS the age of their oldest daughter, Lilach, and also the same age as Mebrete, the first patient she cares for in Ethiopia.
Mebrete means “my light.”
Mebrete is waiting at the preoperative clinic with her sister. Their parents live too far away to come. Mebrete’s back has curved from 45 degrees to 75 degrees in the last year. She wears loose clothing so her classmates won’t see, and she hides her chronic pain.
Spine surgeons Prof. Leon Kaplan and (my son) Dr. Josh Schroeder will work in tandem on two sides of the operating table, a long-practiced technique to efficiently complete long surgeries. The room is crowded with the Israeli and Ethiopian medical staff.
Tadoses-Solomon sits with Mebrete and holds her hand as she’s prepped.
“Her going through surgery without her parents resonated for me,” she says.
“I stayed in the operating room throughout the surgery, alternately praying and texting my colleagues back in Israel.”
Success! Five hours after they begin, the bolts and titanium rod are in place. Mebrete will stand straight as a ruler.
Now it’s Tadoses-Solomon’s job to make sure Mebrete doesn’t get an infection. She prepares the recovery room, firmly setting the parameters with the local nurses, explaining what needs to be done. They can use only certain disinfectants. There’s a sheet shortage, but she insists on acquiring one from the laundry. The Ethiopian nurses watch her move with quiet efficiency, as she tucks in her patient with a gold warming sheet she’s brought from Israel.
She takes care of surgery patients every day they are in Ethiopia, but Mebrete will always stay in her heart.
Was coming back to Ethiopia as an Israeli nurse on her list of life goals when she was 16? “It was beyond my dreams to be able to share what I learned in Israel with those who still live in Ethiopia,” says Tadoses-Solomon. “I’d never thought of going back. We live in Modi’in, not far from Dr. Schroeder, who organized the mission, and sometimes I get a ride with him to the hospital. When he offered me a place, I heard myself leap at the chance.
“I feel so proud to be an Amharic-speaking Israeli, to have worked so hard and to have left poverty behind. But I also felt a comfort level of being back where I was born. I realized I have to reclaim my childhood. Now I know I’ll be back with my husband and my three children. You might change your body language, but you must acknowledge your heritage.”
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.
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