BY GIRMACHEW GASHAW
Today’s guest Professor Morris Hart stein is a Clinical Associate Professor at Tel Aviv University School of Medicine. He also works at an affiliated hospital called Shamir Medical Center. He has been serving the hospital for almost 20 years. Just before that, he was a professor at St. Louis University in the United States in the Department of Ophthalmology and Plastic Surgery.
Recently, the medical team led by Professor Morris came to Ethiopia and provided free medical treatment to patients with complicated eye diseases. In the meantime, he shared his knowledge and expertise with Ethiopian ophthalmologists. The Ethiopian Herald made a brief stay with him to learn more about voluntarism and issues related to his recent visit to Ethiopia. Have a nice read!
What was the main reason that first motivated you to visit Ethiopia?
In 2014, my family and I were looking to take a vacation in the summer. My son, who was 12 years old at the time, asked if we could do a volunteer trip as he wanted to go somewhere to perform volunteer activities. We looked around all over to find different places. There are a lot of Ethiopians in Israel. This forced the family to think more about Ethiopia. For the time being, we couldn’t find anything until we connected with somebody who told us the Jewish community in Ethiopia, Gondar, mainly in the northern parts. We came here and could teach them Hebrew and other activities that are not correlated to medicine. My wife and my four kids, who were between ages 11 and 16, went there. We sang songs, we taught, and we told stories in Hebrew.
Nobody knew that I was an eye doctor. Our guide, Nigussie Alemnew, goes back and forth between Ethiopia and Israel. He knew that I was an eye doctor and asked me to look at a young child. Accordingly, I looked at the child. In the middle, we went out for lunch. When we came back, there were hundreds of people waiting to have their eyes checked. So we examined all of them. At that time, except for my mobile phone flashlight, I didn’t have any medical equipment, as I didn’t plan on being a doctor here. Almost none of them had ever seen a doctor or hadn’t seen one in many years.
Then we went back to Israel. So a year later, we decided to go back and do it the right way. Hence, we gathered up medications and bought glasses at a very cheap price and brought them to Ethiopia together with the whole family again. We then set up a clinic in the Jewish compound in Gondar and examined hundreds of people. We give them medications and glasses. I established a connection with a hospital. I came to give lectures, and then I did surgery, and then it just started, and then we’ve been coming back ever since. And I’d add one more thing that went: we were just going to the Jewish community, but then the municipality in Gondar heard about it and requested us to do more.
Accordingly, we examine other people too. So we started going to other villages; we started with a zone that is right outside Gondar, and we started going to a zone. We also checked hundreds of people and gave those glasses and medications. And then we went to pull out the button, which is also not far from the airport. And then we recently went to Tada, Dabat, and Mexico Net. So we go all over, and sometimes we’ve been in a blender, and then we’ve invited people from the villages to come and see us and the blender. So that’s how it started.
And then it just kind of kept going, and then we, with Dr. Araya, established a program where we brought up homology resonance from Gondar initially to train in Israel to get advanced training to expose them to things maybe they don’t see here. And we’ve so far brought, I think, close to 20 doctors from Ethiopia, I’ve been to Israel.
The other thing we did was realize that there’s a big need for ophthalmologists in Ethiopia. There’s not enough, but there is also a big need for subspecialty training. It’s not enough to be a general eye doctor to have a specialist in cornea, pediatrics, and retinal glaucoma, and what I do is called plastic surgery. So we started bringing doctors from here to train with me; they’re in ocular plastic surgery. And the first one we brought was from Gondar.
Dr. Alex, the chairman of the department, spent a year in Israel training with me. And then we brought Dr. Seble, and she spent four months in Israel with us. There’s another doctor right now, Dr. Huff Tambo. He’s been there with us now for three months. And we had another doctor from St. Paul. And notice that he was there for four months. So we’re trying to help with this subspecialty training. And we work closely with doctors here to decide whom we should bring for training. So besides coming in to provide carriers, we also try to train the doctors and help them become subspecialists.
Apart from treating or providing service for the patients, you are now sharing knowledge and expertise with the Ethiopian doctors, especially with more specialists, to make them proficient, right? What do you say in this regard?
It’s very important to have a lot of general eye doctors, as there’s a shortage here. But it’s equally important to have subspecialty training like we did. We took out a tumor that was behind the eyeball in the socket, and only an inocula, an ocular plastic orbital surgeon, can do that. A general ophthalmologist can do that. And there are a lot of patients with problems. So, there are a lot of patients here. They come in with very advanced diseases. It’s very important to have a subspecialist who takes care of that, as they’re tapped out by hundreds and thousands of people.
Similarly, with the cornea, a lot of people are blind here in Ethiopia because they have a scarred cornea from trachoma. And the only way to fix it is a cornea transplant when everything is stable. So you need a cornea specialist, just an ophthalmologist, and so on if somebody has a retinal detachment. So there’s a big need for subspecialty training, and we’re trying to help with that. We mostly do ocular plastic surgery with Dr. Ribka, with whom she was operating today. She also spent four months at our hospital in Israel, being exposed to new techniques with a cornea.
We also had a doctor from here who came for pediatric ophthalmology, because that’s a whole different field where kids have crossed eyes and other problems. So, once ophthalmology gets developed here, it’s very important to have sub-specialists that treat those problems. And so we’re trying to help with that as much as we can.
Who supports your volunteer activities, both in cash and kind?
That’s a good question. In the beginning, when we came, it was mostly just covering the cost of airline tickets and the hotel. I was able to get donations of eye drops and glasses, and at first we bought the glasses, but we found an NGO in the United States that gives them to us for free.
So it was only the cost of our travel. And so we covered that, but then, like we’ve started doing cataract campaigns here where we go and do hundreds of cataracts out in a village, we did that, and about two months ago, we did about 400 cases. It costs about 50 to 60 USD per case. We’re fortunate that there is a foundation in Switzerland called the Dir Foundation, and I got to know them, and they’ve been supporting the cataract campaign. So they’ve given us a significant sum of money to cover cataract surgery. So we got funding from the D.I.R. Foundation. And
then we’ve had donations from friends and family that encourage what you’re doing there. But I was going to say that when we get a donation from the foundation for the cataract campaign, 100% of that goes to the campaign. We didn’t even use it to cover our flights. I didn’t even buy a Coke here; nothing at all went to the patients. In June of last year, we started our own NGO called Operation Ethiopia. And we were registered in Israel as a non-profit.
So now we’re trying to funnel our expenses through the non-profit. But I still don’t take any salary, but through our NGO, we can at least cover the costs of the airplane. And we don’t have any employees. It’s just me and my wife doing everything. But we’re trying to raise a lot more money. Because, relatively speaking, I think we have a small budget compared to other NGOs; we still need to raise money. And the more we can raise, the more surgery we can do, the more outreach we can do, and the more people we can train. Also, we have a nice grant. In America, there’s an association of ocular plastic surgeons called the American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
If you have a plan to expand this sort of expertise and knowledge to Ethiopia, what sort of support do you need from various organizations?
Right now, we come four times a year. And we would like to expand. We’ve had a lot of people approach us. And I have the connections, but we want to focus on eye care. So we’d like to expand, maybe to more than four trips a year or to bring more people. Right now, we bring about 14 volunteers on each trip, so we’d like to bring more. I would also like to bring in a lot more doctors. Many expert doctors want to come; they can just come for a week or two and do knowledge transfer by teaching operating as I do. But I need to have an Ethiopian medical license, which I have, and to get a license, it takes several months of paperwork, which is understandable.
But if I could figure out a way to speed that up and still keep it reliable, that would be a big help, because I can bring a lot of doctors. After all, some doctors will want to go, and then I’ll say, “Okay, fill out this form and send it to me, and then it will take six months, and they’re not interested. So I understand the requirements, for sure. It’s important, and I’ve always had a license since the time I started coming here. So that can help us expand. And then we also work with another NGO, called the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), at cureblindness.org.
They’ve been here for a long time. They’re a very large NGO, and they do resident education and many cataract campaigns. So they’ve helped us expand a lot by making connections and supplying us with the personnel they need for our cataract campaign, so they’ve been really good. We would also like to help with the fight against trachoma here, which is still very prevalent. I had a conference call yesterday with somebody from the Carter Center, who works a lot in trachoma, and I’ve also spoken to Orbis, and there’s another group called Nala and Ala from Israel that’s been here for many years.
Some people say we have no time to provide volunteer service. So what do you suggest for them?
Yeah, it’s tough. I have two other jobs. Back in Israel, I work in a public hospital, and then I also have a private practice and a family. So it’s very hard, but I think every day I’m coming here a lot. I think everybody in general, if they find the time to volunteer and don’t have to travel like me, can do it in their community. It’s like that analogy where you fill up the jar with sand, marbles, and plants, and there seems to always be room for more when you think your life is so busy. But you always find time to think about volunteering for an hour, a week, or something simple.
It doesn’t have to be what we’re doing and traveling for. But in terms of me, I find this has grown so much, personally that right now I’m on a mini-sabbatical from my hospital there. And not completely; I reduced my time there just so I could spend more time on this for six months because this is growing so much. So even when we’re not here, we’re following up on what we’re planning. So this has become almost a full-time job. So I’ve just seen what happens. I have a friend here who has a friend in Israel who has an NGO that does water supply in Africa, but not yet in Ethiopia. And she also did it on the side for many years. And now it’s her full-time job. So that I don’t know if that will happen to me in the future that, you know, I get so busy here that, you know, just keep doing this, which would be great.
When you come to Ethiopia, what makes you happy?
Well, my kids have been here multiple times. We just feel at home. We walk in the streets, go jogging, and eat, and we love the atmosphere. And we just feel thoroughly at home, as the people are very nice and very welcoming. And there’s a long history of attachment between Israel and Ethiopia.
Even though we started with the Jewish people, we now extend to everybody; we just really feel like one people with Ethiopians. And that’s why we keep coming back-because we want to help. I’ve had the opportunity to go to other countries and provide care. But, right now, there’s plenty of work to do here. But we love Ethiopian. We love coming back. My son, who was 19 this past September, came here for almost a month by himself, volunteering in the community in Gondar. And so he just feels very at home here.
He knows how to dance. And we’d like to say that the first time we came, we didn’t need any food here. Somebody told us, Oh, you’re from; don’t eat the food you’ll get,” and so we didn’t need any local food; we brought all it, but now we love the local food. We’d like to fast, but we don’t eat meat. But eat injera with shiro wot, firfir, everything, and St. George and Habesha.
Thank you very much, doctor. Thank you.
THE ETHIOPIAN HERALD SATURDAY 27 MAY 2023