Derek Sprunger and his wife were eating dinner in a Fishers restaurant recommended by a friend when the owner of St. Yared Ethiopian Cuisine and Coffeehouse sat down to talk with the new patrons.
What do you do for a living? Haile Abebe eventually asked Sprunger, as he ate the vegetarian stews and injera, the cuisine’s signature spongy bread.
Pediatric ophthalmologist, Sprunger replied.
Abebe, who just moments before had been chatty and animated, fell silent.
“The look on his face. … It was like he had seen a ghost,” Sprunger recalled.
Abebe’s preschooler niece in Ethiopia had a tumor on her right eye that just kept growing and growing. The unsightly growth prevented the girl from going to school, she could no longer see out of that eye, and her family members feared that without treatment she would eventually lose the eye altogether. The family had seen many doctors in their own country and even a specialist in India, but none could offer any help.
Sprunger said if Abebe would send him the girl’s medical records, he would see what he could do.
From that conversation and many others with experts and officials at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, the Glick Eye Institute and the Midwest Eye Institute, a plan formed. In May, 4-year-old Belul Yitbarek and her mother Helen Solomon traveled from their home in the north of Ethiopia to Indianapolis.
At the end of July, Belul underwent a six-hour, delicate surgery to remove the tumor, an optic glioma.
Rare and slow-growing, optic gliomas in the United States usually do not grow to the size that Belul’s tumor reached. But at least a year or two passed as Belul’s tumor went untreated.
Desperate, Belul’s parents took the girl from monastery to monastery in Ethiopia, hoping for priestly prayers or holy water that would cure her. Some of the monasteries were so remote that after a certain point on unpaved roads, Solomon would have to carry Belul the final miles on her back.
Meanwhile, the tumor’s appearance worsened, Abebe said.
“She didn’t have pain, but it was bulging out, and over time it started to come out, tear up, and see this blood, and this was really throwing the whole family into despair,” Abebe said. “They saw this every day, and they can’t do anything.”
Back in the United States, Abebe wanted to intervene to help his sister’s granddaughter.
“There’s got to be something. I knew there may be a way, but I was totally helpless,” he said. “If she doesn’t get treatment, I know what this will lead to.”
For Abebe, the situation brought back painful memories. About 35 years ago, his older sister died in Ethiopia in her mid-30s. She had complications from a kidney condition, and just like with Belul, local doctors did not have the expertise to help.
Then came the chance encounter in his restaurant.
Abebe called Solomon to tell her doctors in the U.S. might treat her daughter.
“The minute they heard there was hope, there was a shock of joy everywhere,” Abebe said.
Here, doctors in four specialties collaborated to treat Belul.
Sprunger, a pediatric ophthalmologist and associate clinical professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, presented her records to Dr. Rick Burgett, an orbital surgeon at Midwest Eye Institute. He performed surgery at Riley as did Dr. Joel Boaz, a pediatric neurosurgeon with Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine. Belul is also under the care of Riley hematologist-oncologists. The doctors volunteered their services.
“I think the family certainly did everything to get her taken care of, but the treatment is so rare and so specialized that it was not available in that region of Africa,” Burgett said. “Her tumor certainly highlights the high degree of specialization that is required.”
If Belul had not had treatment, the tumor would have continued growing, pushing out the eye until it broke down and would need to be removed, Burgett said.
The surgery removed the majority of the tumor, though a small part in the tip of the eye socket that reaches into the brain remains because doctors felt the risk of removal was greater than any benefit that might afford.
Although doctors hope they have saved Belul’s eye and made her more comfortable, the one thing they could not preserve was her vision in that eye, which she lost a long time ago, Burgett said.
“There’s no hope that the vision would return before she ever got on the plane,” he said. “We knew there was no hope that that eye would ever see again.”
Belul, who is sensitive still about her eye’s appearance as it heals, has a preschooler’s insouciance toward a medical condition that is now at least partly resolved.
When her uncle asked her if her medical ordeal was scary, she shook her head no.
So grateful to her doctors, she said through her uncle, that she is planning on becoming a physician herself when she grows up.
For now, she is enjoying her time in the United States, adding bits of English and Spanish — thanks to the “Dora the Explorer” animated TV series — to the two Ethiopian languages, Amharic and Tigrinya, she already speaks.
Even after she leaves, Abebe plans to have a daily reminder of his great-niece thousands of miles away, whom he met for the first time when she came here last spring.
He gestured to a table for two in a nook of his restaurant. There, he said, is where Sprunger sat and the two had that fateful conversation. Soon, he said, he will dedicate that table to the doctors who saved his beloved great-niece.
Call Star reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Twitter @srudavsky.
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