by Mohammed Ademo
Ranked the third saddest place in the world after Zimbabwe and Central Africa Republic, by Forbes magazine, Ethiopia
faces many serious challenges in alleviating poverty, access to education, and delivery of health care.
Approximately 4.6 million Ethiopians lack food security. Seventy percent of the country’s 82 million people are uneducated. Its growing youth base faces a 20 percent rate of unemployment.
At 5.4 births per woman, Ethiopia has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. Because 93 percent of all births take place at home, an estimated 20,000 new mothers die each year. Nearly half a million children die from preventable and treatable infectious diseases annually. Undernourishment soars at 40 percent. These are but brief statistics about Ethiopia.
Of the multifaceted challenges Ethiopia faces, basic healthcare is perhaps the most pressing of needs. Obse Tadessa Lubo is determined to turn the tables on accessing health care in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous region – one hospital and one patient at a time.
“It hurts to see a mother losing her child and her life while giving birth due to power outage and lack of anesthesia machine to perform a simple procedure that could have saved both their lives,” saidLubo, shortly after returning from Najo.
Over the last three years, Lubo chose her hometown of Najo, in western Oromia, for a five weeks vacation. But she wasn’t sitting by a beach with a nice view. Instead, she was helping improve the delivery of health care at Najo hospital by providing donated medical supplies – and volunteering her time. Last December, on her third medical mission, Lubo rallied two of her colleagues from Modesto, California to spend a week at Najo hospital – where they were received with a celebrity-like welcome.
“Over 80 people welcomed us 20 miles outside the city’s entrance,” said Lubo, who works as a nurse at Memorial Medical Center. “That was followed by a welcome party at the hospital and later at town’s only five-star hotel – and speeches, blessing and gifts from the elders.”
For Lubo, the surprise party had bigger lessons. First, it brought the community together, regardless of the religious, social and economic divides. The appreciation the community showed her for what she considers “ just another volunteer work,” was humbling to her as it was also a sign that the town’s people were “hit hard where many young lives perish from communicable diseases and easily preventable illness,” she said. “The community is hungry for that trend to be broken.”
The elders’ speeches and the hope they’ve placed on the diaspora to bring about positive change to the country was a chilling reminder for Lubo that more needs be done. “They want a healthy community and to raise healthy kids,” said Lubo. “That put a huge pressure on me.”
The next day, Lubo’s medical team, which included Dr. Hassan Hussain, an interventional cardiologist, and Diane Brandeberry, a nurse, faced a different kind of surprise.
The preliminary screenings of about 98 cardiac patients, including 37 echocardiograms, found 16 children with severe congenital heart disease, a result of abnormal heart development before birth, that couldn’t be treated in Najo. The next logical step was to take them to Finfinne (Addis Ababa), Ethiopia’s capital city, a bumpy 12-hour journey southeast. But there was on question that needed to be answered. Who pays for the children’s trip and medical treatment?
But despite the high expectation placed on the diaspora, the community isn’t simply waiting to ‘be rescued,’ according to Lubo. The town’s well-to-do residents are on board with her mission. “Two business owners paid for the cardiac patients transportation to and from Finfinne,” said Lubo. The local Lalisa Najo-Jarso youth group – which also paid for Dr. Hussain and Diane’s stay in Najo – donated money to offset additional travel costs.
In Finfinne, the patients, referred to as “the executive list of Najo hospital,” were seen by one of the country’s few pediatric cardiologists and received a full diagnostic test. Lubo covered accommodation and medical expenses including medications.
Dr. Hussain is now seeking hospitals and donors in the U.S. and India to sponsor those who need a life-saving surgery that cannot be done in Ethiopia.
This year, Lubo split her time between helping out at Najo hospital – her primary volunteer site – and training nurses at Gimbi and Begi hospitals on infection prevention, nursing standards and ethics. “I also went door to door educating the locals on diabetes, hypertension, and infection prevention,” said Lubo, who is currently traveling within the U.S. raising funds for her 2012 mission trip.
Lubo, who was born and raised in Najo, said her commitment to the improvement of health care delivery in Ethiopia emanates from early experience seeing people die from easily curable diseases.
Despite financial and other constraints, Lubo is hopeful and determined. “My motto is saving one soul at a time until we achieve quality health care in that area,” said Lubo. “I feel like I’m accomplishing that every year when I go back to Najo.”
Signs of change because of her effort are already visible. For example, her curriculum on infection prevention, where she trained the nurses at the hospital over the last few years, was all implemented. “You can see the environment around the hospital ward is kept clean, there’s less clutter, nurses now have uniforms,” said Lubo, who received a certificate of appreciation from the Najo Hospital governing board. She was recognized for “genuine efforts in bringing specialists from the USA, initiating donation of medical equipments and for enabling the hospital to render quality health care services.”
Lubo took her mission one step further this year by visiting Jarso Health Center and Nejo Swedish Mission Clinic in addition to Begi and Gimbi hospitals, where she conducted medical need assessment and donated supplies.
“The visits were mainly to build a working relationship with other hospitals and health centers in the area,” said Lubo whose long-term goal includes expanding the medical mission to other cities and hospitals in Oromia. “They all deserve a quality care and visiting those hospitals was the first step toward expanding this project.”
Besides her medical mission, she also hosted an award ceremony for two schools in Jarso and two schools in Najo. “I did this to motivate and influence the students in a positive way and show them that education is their ticket out of poverty, and oppression,” said Lubo. “I once attended one of those schools and I too was raised by illiterate parents, so it was my way of telling them if I could do it, they can do even better.”
Lubo is also planting other seeds. She wanted to create an atmosphere for Lalisa Najo-Jarso youth group, which she formed by bringing together Najo-Jarso natives in Finfinne the previous year. The group will now take the lead on school projects, which includes tutoring, mentoring, scholarship opportunities, cleaning streets and planting trees.
Perhaps the highlight of Lubo’s 2011 mission was the shipment of a 40-foot container full of medical equipments and supplies to Najo hospital. The container, which was sent from the United States in August – arrived in Najo on Dec. 24, 2011 – a few days after Lubo returned to the States. When she left Najo, the community was anxious for the arrival of the shipment, and grateful for Lubo’s contributions. “Few days before I left, one elder told me, ‘I am happy to have lived long enough to witness this day,’” said Lubo, who insists her contribution is not historic. When the container arrived, the community members raced to unload the supplies and equipments.
According to Lubo, the container had about 960 boxes of donated medical equipments and supplies such as anesthesia machine, microscopes, brand new heavy-duty laundry machine and Dryer, beds, mattresses, gurney/stretchers, vital sign machines, wheelchairs, exam tables, laboratory supplies, and much more. Most of the equipment’s were donated while the cost of shipping was covered through fundraising – and individual contributions from the community.
The pharmacy department at Memorial Medical Center, where Lubo worked for the last five years, donated most of the medications and an anesthesia machine; Lubo’s eye doctor donated 140 pairs of prescription glasses, and the rest of the donation came from MedShare International in California, a nonprofit organization that collect and distributes surplus of medical supplies and equipment.
Lubo organized fundraising events in Minnesota, DC, and California – in addition to individual donations sent after learning of her initiatives through social media, and news reports last year. “A big chunk of the donation came from unknown donors who had heard about this project through OPride.com and VOA,” said Lubo. “Unnamed third parties donated $10,000 and I also took a second job to supplement the container-shipping fee.” It cost nearly $30,000 to ship the cargo from California to Najo.
While shipping donated equipments to her homeland, Lubo had to make choices like leaving an ultrasound and X-ray machine because she couldn’t find a bio-medical engineer to certify its functionality free of charge prior to shipment.
Lubo said she is extremely grateful to all who helped make this possible – especially the Medical Relief Foundation and it’s president, Mr. Graham Pierce.
As the onward looking Lubo pondered her next steps, the lessons she learned while transporting acutely ill children to Finfinne to be seen by specialists led to an even more ambitious project.
“Given their condition, we almost lost two children on the way, they were more sick when we got to Finfinne due to the long commute and rough road,” said Lubo about the 12-hour journey to the capital. “I wished if there was a place in Najo or other cities in Wallaga where we could have taken them for a diagnostic testing.”
But in a country where there are only a handful of cardiac surgeons, such diagnostic centers in the countryside are unthinkable. Even if it existed, Ethiopia’s poor, who get by on less than $2 a day, could hardly afford the expensive treatment. “Most of the children I brought to Finfinne, the families couldn’t purchase their medication for a month, which only costs about $ 5-10,” Lubo added.
“I decided right there an then that we need a diagnostic center in Najo, so that we can spare the sick patients additional pain – and even potential death – that comes with a 12 hour bus-ride to Finfinne.”
Her decision was well received by doctors at Najo Hospital as well as business owners she’d consulted. After a meeting with the town’s mayor, within a week after the idea was conceived, Lubo was given “a huge track of land” – the future home of Najo Hospital Diagnostic and Imaging Center as she now proudly says.
Lubo wants the community to take full-ownership in building the center. To that effect, she’s involving business owners, elders, local officials, and the regional Oromia Health Bureau in the process. She said the response so far has been “positive and promising.”
According to Lubo, if and when built, the center will benefit more than 1.5 million people in the region and will become the first Diagnostic and Imaging Center in Oromia.
She hopes to fully equip the facility with donated diagnostic equipments including but not limited to ultrasound, X-ray machines, laboratory equipments, CT scanners, and mammography machines.
Inspired by this year’s mission trip, Dr. Hussain is sponsoring an ultrasound technician from Modesto, Cali. to spend two weeks in Najo screening patients, mainly children for congenital heart disease. The Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, where both Lubo and Dr. Hussain work, has donated a portable echocardiogram to the technician to take with him to Najo. Less than a month after coming back to the states, Lubo who just returned from a fundraising trip to Canada has done numerous presentations and plans to do a nationwide fundraising tour to shore-up support for the project.
“By far, this is the biggest project that I’ve ever worked on, I’m optimistic and hopeful that it will happen,” said Lubo. “But this is not my project. I can’t do it alone, I’ll need everyone’s help which can take a form of financial support, donating time and expertise, advices, and creating awareness in the community.”
As to how she does all these while holding down a full-time job, Lubo said,“persistence and determination.”
Living in a small town in northern California was in part helpful. “On my day off, I drive around the doctors office and collect equipments and money,” she said with a smile. “I tell everyone I see at work about this project. A doctor once told me, “can I do round on my patients without you asking me for money. I responded, ‘a lot of patients are dying, in my country, due to lack of basic medical care that we take for granted here.’” The next morning, the doctor wrote a check to the Najo Hospital project and brought to work, she recalled.
Lubo hopes to recruit more doctors and nurses for her annual mission to Najo hospital and also plans to expand to other hospitals in the Oromia region. “I want to call on all Oromo health care professionals – doctors, nurses, pharmacy, respiratory care, lab technicians, bio-medical engineers and others – to either join me on this fight or start similar missions in their own community,” said Lubo. “I will be more than happy to share my experience and help in anyway I can.”
For the 2012 medical mission to Najo Hospital and to build the first ever imaging center in Oromia – outside of Finfinne, Lubo is planning fundraising events in Minnesota, Washington D.C, Seattle, and California. Listen to Obse’s interview with Voice of America Afan Oromo service.
For more information about her projects and upcoming events contact Lubo at Nejo2009@gmail.com or 612-669-1417.