THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

WRITTEN BY
Taylor Nam

LOCATION
Ghana, Africa.

If they move, it hurts. It they don’t move, it hurts. Everything, for the young patients just arriving at the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine (FOCOS) in Accra, Ghana, hurts. Severe back deformities have confined these young children’s lives to short, painful motions. What would be considered “normal” active play simply does not exist for these children. Even the seemingly simple act of sitting still causes acute pressure on the lungs and other internal organs.

Such extreme scoliosis has not only robbed these young people of their childhood, but has also made any hope of becoming contributing adult citizens in their communities an unrealistic expectation. Thus, these children have been destined to a life held captive literally, by their own bodies. Until now.

Dr. Boachie-Adjei, a world-renowned spine surgeon began leading short term volunteer mission trips from the United States to Ghana in 1998, fulfilling his lifelong dream to return to his home country and serve his people. These mission trips eventually grew to be a state-of-the-art facility, FOCOS Orthopedic Hospital. Since its conception, the FOCOS team has treated nearly 50,000 patients and completed over 2,000 surgeries…and they are just getting started. At FOCOS, the healing journey begins before and then goes far beyond the actual surgery.

When the patients first arrive, they undergo pre-op procedures that can take from three to nine days. A team of doctors perform a variety of check-ups as well as x-rays and MRI’s to assess the patient’s full health. Because many of the children come from malnourished communities, they are also administered a nutritionally rich diet to strengthen their bodies for the four to nine hour invasive surgery ahead of them and will aid in their healing process after surgery.

Additionally, the patients are put into traction for a minimum of four weeks before surgery. The apparatus, involving a halo around the patient’s head attached to a frame, helps to make the spine more flexible by slowly manipulating and stretching it.

The surgery itself requires a firm, but delicate hand. Because the spine is an important part of the central nervous system, the FOCOS team must operate with gentleness, so as to avoid any threat of paralysis, while at the same time hammering, chiseling and breaking the bones into submission.

If all goes according to the carefully executed treatment plan, in the weeks following surgery, the patients stay at FOCOS until they are fully healed and ready to go home. They complete physical therapy, slowly regaining strength and explore what it means to use their new bodies.

Former patient and now caregiver at FOCOS, Tigist Desalegn, 25, reflects, “People used to tease me, they think you are cursed or a different creature, and that was the most painful part of this problem. But now I am free!” She smiles through her voice: “The day I saw my back straight was the happiest day of my life. I want them [the other patients] to have that smile, like the one I have.”

Dr. Boachie-Adjei expresses this sentiment as well. “I think the number one joy is really seeing the helpless patient have a smile on their face after being treated,” he says. “It could be somebody who doesn’t even speak my language, but they know exactly what I did for them.”

Indeed, the patients at FOCOS arrive at the facility as strangers, traveling alone, and oftentimes, with very minimal communication afforded back home. Their caregivers administer daily meals and medicines, but during their time at the facility, these young people must learn to depend on one another for emotional support and acceptance. What they share is an experience that no one outside FOCOS understands.

Every day, new cases present themselves in the long, winding roads each patient travels to reach FOCOS, and every day frees another child to embrace what it means to move, to play, to grow.