Straightening Sisay’s Spine: A Twist Of Fate Saves A Boy’s Life
One dewy morning back in May 2013, a dozen children gathered in an elementary school courtyard to play soccer in Addis Ababa. Seven-year-old Sisay Gudeta stood alone on the balcony above them.
Sisay poked his head through the arms of a rusty, blue guard rail, staring down at his classmates as they kickedan empty plastic bottle across the pavement. The kids rarely ask him to play, Sisay says. They are afraid to touch him, afraid of the bump on his back that stretches out his neatly pressed school sweater.
"He is such a beautiful child," Sisay’s grandmother says. "I ask God what I did to do this to him."
For reasons unknown, thousands of children in Ethiopia suffer from congenital spine conditions so severe that humps grow from their backs. Their spines resemble flattened pancakes and roller-coaster tracks, says Dr. Rick Hodes, an American who runs the onlyspine clinic in Addis Ababa, a city of 3 million people.
Such extreme scoliosis cases are found in many poor countries. But Hodes thinks that lack of screening and access to basic medical care leaves Ethiopia with some of the worst spines in the world.
If not effectively treated, scoliosis can lead to permanent deformity, disc injuries and neurological damage. Here in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health recommends doctors use a brace to help straighten a child’s back when the spine curves more than 25 to 30 degrees. When the curve reaches more than 45 degrees, surgery is often needed.
Yet thousands of Ethiopian children receive no medical treatment for their scoliosis. In villages, a traditional healer may try to flatten the child’s back by pressing hot rocks to the skin. Others with twisted spines and humpbacks are ostracized or abandoned and left to die.
Continue reading and view a slideshow at NPR.
Photo: Sisay Gudeta, then age 7, sits on his bed at his home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 2013. At the time, his spine curved about 120 degrees. Without surgery, Sisay’s scoliosis would have killed before age 18, doctors said. (Andrew Dickinson for NPR)
Definitely click through to see more of these stunning images. -Emily