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Threat of paralysis stops surgeon's work to treat Ethiopian man's scoliosis

Yalew Birkie Assefa hoped American doctors could straighten his twisted spine.

The Ethiopian man's first surgery April 29 went well. But surgeons had to stop his second 10-hour surgery a week later. A few hours in, they discovered that straightening his spine would likely paralyze him.

"His spinal cord was telling us it wouldn't allow us to do the correction," said his surgeon, Dr. Geoffrey Cronen.

Cronen and another surgeon, Dr. Anthony P. Moreno, were part of a pro-bono medical team that volunteered its services to perform the surgeries at University Community Hospital in Tampa. Debbie Ordes, president of the Palm Harbor chapter of the Scoliosis Association, helped arrange Assefa's procedure with the team after he contacted her online three years ago, asking for help.

During Thursday's surgery, instruments monitored what was going on with Assefa's spinal cord, Cronen said.

"The data did not look promising," he said. "We made the decision to abort the procedure."

But they were able to stabilize Assefa's spine and perform a "mild correction," Moreno said. So, he said, "the curve will not progress."

• • •

Assefa, 30, was diagnosed with scoliosis when he was 13. Specialists in his country initially told him they didn't expect him to have any major problems, but as he grew older his spine began to curve toward itself. Now, it curves more than 140 degrees.

Assefa came here last month to prepare for the surgeries. He and his mother have been staying in a Palm Harbor condo.

Since he arrived, dozens of members of the community and local churches have chipped in to support Assefa and his mother, who are Orthodox Christians.

They're acting as interpreters, bringing food and visiting Assefa in the hospital as he recovers.

One member of Tampa's St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Seble Gizaw, who owns Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant, prepared a meal for the family before the surgery. Since then, she has visited Assefa and his mother at the hospital along with other church members.

Gizaw said the group plans to support Assefa and his mother after they return to Ethiopia.

"We're going to continue to help them after they go back," she said.

Mirijana Todorovich, whose husband is pastor at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Largo, read about Assefa in the newspaper and decided to help his mother, Yamrot Yimer.

She wanted to give Yimer a "little freedom," so she wouldn't have to depend on others during her stay. With the help of church members, Todorovich collected $375.

She visited Assefa a few days before his surgery and delivered the money in a Liz Claiborne clutch. She also gave Yimer a wooden cross from Serbia. And she handed Assefa a religious icon, a tiny wooden book with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Since then, Assefa has held onto the icon, even bringing it into surgery with him, Ordes said.

During the first surgery, the surgeons made cuts in his spine to loosen it and make it easier to straighten. They also attached screws to each side of the spine and install temporary rods.

During the second, they installed permanent rods, but weren't able to manipulate the spine and correct the deformity.

Assefa is the third person from abroad helped since 2007 by local medical teams and Ordes, who is the national president-elect of the Scoliosis Association. Both previous surgeries were successful, Ordes said.

Cronen and Moreno were part of the team who operated on Tatiana Cojocaru, 26, from Moldova in eastern Europe, last year. Her curve was similar to Assefa's. Her spine now curves about half as much as it did before. She was feeling so well that she started running, something doctors later told her she wasn't supposed to do, Ordes said.

• • •

On Friday, a day after Assefa's surgery, his voice was not strong enough to talk, so he wrote Dr. Cronen a note. Another surgeon who was African-born like him refused to do his surgery, Assefa wrote. But Assefa said he was grateful that the American doctors offered to help him, regardless of the outcome, Cronen said.

Dr. Moreno said he expects Assefa to make a full recovery. And he could be back to work as an laboratory office assistant within three months, he said.

On Monday, Assefa was able to eat mashed potatoes, said Hilina Mekonnen, 33, another member of the Tampa Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

And on Tuesday, Assefa was able to walk over to a chair and sit in it, Ordes said.

Even though doctors were not able to straighten his spine, Assefa and his mother are satisfied, said Mekonnen, who is also a nurse.

Assefa was anxious before his second surgery, she said.

"He really thought he was not going to come out of the surgery," said Mekonnen, 33. "They're both very pleased. He's moving his toes. He's able to walk."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at or (727) 445-4155.

Threat of paralysis stops surgeon's work to treat Ethiopian man's scoliosis 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 7:43pm]
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