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Ethiopian Girl Stands Tall Thanks to Free Spine Surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital

May 6th, 2014
Surgery to correct 18-year-old Tizita Tesfay’s severe scoliosis took about eight hours, but her journey was more than a year in the making.

The curve in her spine was so severe – an “s” shaped curve of more than 105 degrees – that Tizita only stood 4’8” tall. Living in pain and with the threat of serious damage to her heart and lungs caused by the deformity, the diminutive girl bravely traveled halfway around the world all by herself for the chance to have corrective surgery.   Arriving in the United States on April 15, Tizita met spine surgeon Laurence Mermelstein, MD, who operated on her at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip less than a week later.

After a grueling procedure during which her tightened and twisted ligaments and spinal joints were surgically released and stiff rods implanted to hold her spine and vertebral joints in position, Tizita has not only gained a new outlook on life, but four inches in stature.

Tizita’s odyssey began in Sebeta, a rural village in Ethiopia where she lives with her parents and two younger brothers. She was identified as a candidate for surgery after a visit to a clinic in the capital city of Addis Ababa, an hour from her home. There she met Rick Hodes, MD, an American physician who has dedicated his life and career to providing medical care to the poor in Ethiopia and other impoverished nations.

Dr. Hodes was well known to Diane Curley, MSN, RN, Director of Clinical Resources at Catholic Health Services (CHS). Diane volunteers her time with an organization that provides humanitarian aid and health care services to orphans in Ethiopia. She thought that the talented surgeons affiliated with CHS might be able to help with Dr. Hodes’ mission.

When they learned about Tizita, Dr. Mermelstein and his partner, Hargovind DeWal, MD, of Long Island Spine Specialists in Commack, enthusiastically agreed to donate their services to correct her deformity. They were assisted in the operating room by plastic and reconstructive surgeon Michael Dobryansky, MD, of the Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, who provided his services pro bono. Good Samaritan Hospital also donated its services, as did medical device manufacturer Medtronic and intraoperative monitoring company SMS.

Tizita will remain in the United States with a host family until mid-May, when she will return to Ethiopia to continue her recovery while being monitored by Dr. Hodes.

A disproportionately high number of spinal deformities are seen in Ethiopian children. Some are congenital, others are developmental, but many are due to the prevalence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

“The problem is that there is a lack of adequate medical care in Ethiopia to treat these children,” said Dr. Mermelstein, who specializes in treating scoliosis and other spine problems. In the United States, children with scoliosis are often treated with bracing. Here, a 50 degree curve is considered severe enough to warrant surgery.

“This was the first of what will hopefully be many more cases to come,” said Dr. DeWal. “We hope that Tizita’s good outcome will open the door to us helping even more children in the future.”

Pictured (L-R): Diane Curley, MSN, RN, Director of Clinical Resources at Catholic Health Services, Kristopher Stillwell, PA, Michael Dobryansky, MD, host mother Mae Caime, office manager, Long Island Spine Specialists, patient Tizita Tesfay, Laurence Mermelstein, MD, Hargovind DeWal, MD and neuro-monitoring technician Justin Silverstein.


Colleen Valdini
Manager, Public and External Affairs
(631) 376-4483