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A Grandmother’s Love
Biruk’s grandmother once took me aside to ask: “Will you please operate on Biruk before I die?” I asked her age, and she had no idea. She didn’t remember the Italian invasion – October 1935. She was already married during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, so she has to be at least 70.
She has been married three times, the first time as a 10-year-old. They were together for two years, no children. The second was disrupted by their cows developing rabies after being bitten by a rabid dog. She went home to her family, and her husband went elsewhere. The had one daughter who died as a baby.
The third husband was the father of three children, who all died. She is left only with Biruk, her grandson.
We asked what she thinks of Biruk, age 10: “I love him. I don’t believe my own eyes – I always want to look at him, also, nothing else.”
“When he developed a bad back,” she continued, “I was afraid I would lose him as well. I went to a health center in Yirer. We were sent to four other hospitals before we found you. God gave me Dr. Rick, like rain.”
We asked about how she lives. Someone gave her a home; it sounds like a lean-to, with corrugated walls and an open ceiling. It rains into the house. Neighbors walk by and give her a bit of money each day to live and buy food. The kindness Ethiopians can show towards each other never ceases to amaze me.
Biruk went to Ghana and had surgery earlier this year. We found that he also has a heart condition, but not one that prevents operation. He had a significant S-curve, but it was less than 100 degrees, and he was operated without traction. He had growing rods implanted and wears a brace while he is awake.
Biruk now has a future, and his grandmother has another reason to keep going.
A long walk to a new life
Bires, 25, dropped out of school in ninth grade due to taunting from students about his deformed back. He worked as a day laborer and shined shoes. He entered a program in Gondar training people with disabilities to become tailors, using foot-powered sewing machines.
One day a classmate took him aside and showed him his back, saying, “I used to be like you, but a doctor in Addis sent me to Ghana for traction and surgery.”
Bires graduated second out of 120 students and told his brother, an Orthodox priest, that he needed to come to Addis Ababa. The priest told his wife he would sell a cow to raise the $15 bus fare. His wife said, “No way.”
Instead, the brothers walked for eight days, about 250 miles. We asked, “Where did you sleep at night?”
“Egzabher engida,” they replied, literally “guest of God.” At night they would knock on a stranger’s door and say, “We are guests sent to you by God. Please let us in.”
Every night they were welcomed, given a basin, water, and soap to wash their feet, fed a large meal, and shown out in the morning.
We sent Bires to Ghana for five months of traction, followed by two surgeries. He is now hoping to buy a sewing machine to open a tailor shop.
Once a patient, now a doctor
Dear Dr. Rick –
Life is full of transitions. People are born, they grow and change, they die. There are a lot of intermediate steps. It’s important to remember that it isn’t always about life or death.
This letter of appreciation is about one of these intermediate steps, I wanted to thank you not only about what you did to my son, Dagmawi, but more so on behalf of the children and families you are supporting beyond your professional obligation.
The good things you are doing have wiped out tears from sighing mothers and paste joy and happiness on the face of the needy children. This world is full of sin, and the sheer size and frequency of its inequity would force one to think that this planet is hurling to its destruction.
However, it is my conviction that good-hearted people like you are the ones who stop this planet from its suicidal mission. I thank you on behalf of the many Ethiopian children who have benefited from your medical and social care.
I am genuinely at a loss for words in expressing my gratitude to you and your organization.
Dr. Dagmawi Eyobs
Background: Dagmawi came to us in 2006 as a high school student with a congenital spinal deformity. He did not want surgery. He sat with Dejene, Dr. Rick’s son, who described his surgery for an hour. He then agreed to surgery. Last year he graduated from medical school!