Nurse Toni Belanger picked up a doll and wrapped its legs and abdomen with gauze to mimic the dressings of the three-year-old burn victim. The little girl had been severely scarred when her dress caught fire and stuck to her chest, neck, lower face, shin and arms. The sight and the screams of the child were almost more than this seasoned nurse could bear a few days earlier.
Toni handed the doll to the girl, but she had no idea what to do with it—she had never had a doll before. She turned it around and around, looking at the gauze dressings, then kissed it and laid it on her chest. Looking up at Toni she smiled, the first since the tragedy and the long and painful skin grafts that followed. Toni cried.
The Conscience International surgical team from the Texas Back Institute were again in Ethiopia doing what they have done annually for the past six years—providing free surgical and medical care to those who could never afford to pay for it. Dr. Ted Belanger, Toni’s husband, leads the team.
After a tiresome 16-hour flight from Dallas, the group of doctors, nurses, and assistants went right to work reviewing the cases of 35 pre-opt patients and post-opt patients from last year. They grabbed a few hours of sleep then were back at the hospital scrubbing in for what would become one of many 8 to 12 hour-long days of surgeries, meals often grabbed as take-outs, rest when they could find it. This year it was more than curved spines facing the team. Accompanied by fellow surgeons from Portugal and France, they would complete 30 surgeries of various description—from spinal corrections to burn victims, to tumor removals, and even breast reductions for health improvement. For example:
- Bethlehem Saleshi, a 14-year-old girl who had a 53-degree curve of the spine two months earlier that had progressed to 77 degrees. A 19-year-old male with 82-degree scoliosis that had advanced to 107 degrees. But they now stand taller after surgery.
- A 46-year-old lady completely bent over like the letter “C” requiring a two-part surgery and a quickly built special surgical table. Medical teams in hard places sometimes have to be carpenters too. She, too, stands taller now.
- In another OR, Dr. Angobaldo removed a 30-lb. neurofibromatosis tumor on the side of a patient, so big it hung down to the patient’s foot. He now walks in comfort.
Dr. Ted Belanger and his wife, Nurse Toni, spent their 13th wedding anniversary in Ethiopia as they do each year—helping others
Then Dr.Angobaldo turned his attention to the three-year-old burn victim. It would require a special instrument before he could begin grafting skin from other parts of her little body to repair the painful and skinless areas of burn. He borrowed the instrument from another hospital and went to work, helping a little girl heal.
And there were so many more to help.
At the end of the long tour, smiling patients wanted pictures with their heroes. Then it was time to pack up and head back to Dallas-- until next year.
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