Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tesfaye's Story - the next chapter begins

(Note: "Double Clicking" on any picture in this blog will allow you to view a larger version of it)

How life is going for Tesfaye back in Ethiopia and related thoughts:
Over the last few weeks since Tesfaye's return to Ethiopia, while Nanci and I were in Israel and since returning to Vancouver, we have had a few short emails from Tesfaye telling us that:
  • he arrived safely and not to worry, he is doing well;
  • everyone back home thought he looked unbelievable;
  • he does not have internet access at Dr. Rick's house, so goes to an internet cafe from time to time to email us;
  • he has spoken to his mother and brother on the phone and they are all fine;
  • he is eating well, injerra meals and sometimes macaroni;
  • Azmera loves her new eyeglasses;
  • he gave some of the clothes he brought back to others in the house;
  • as we discussed before he went back, he has found a new and better quality school to attend (his last one had limited English instruction and he found the students very disruptive), and I understand that he has recently started his studies there; and
  • he misses us!

And we miss him terribly --  we miss his constant smile, his signature finger pose in pictures, his great sense of humour, his positive outlook, his instant connection and wonderful relationship with our dog Ziggy and cockatoo Mango, his natural curiousity, his desire to learn, and his ability to appreciate life and never abandon hope no matter what curves it may throw at him.  The amazing thing is that Tesfaye possessed all of theses qualities before the corrective spine surgery, in spite of the extremely difficult and painful life he led over the last 12 years, in spite of the debilitating and disfiguring back he had to live with until now (read or re-read his life history reproduced down the right hand column of this blog).

As I have said before in this blog and in other venues, Tesfaye is a very special young man with a positive outlook on life that can overcome most any adversity; we can all learn something from him. Now that as a result of his successful spine surgery he has gained a remarkable new and upright physical outlook on life to go along with his already great mental outlook, I know that he has a far brighter future ahead of him, and believe that he will make something of himself and go on to have a positive impact on other people's lives, as he in fact already has.  I feel so fortunate to have crossed paths with him and to have become part of his "Journey of Hope"; but whatever my family and I have been able to give Tesfaye, we have gained so much more from him in return. Although we miss each other, I hope to return to Ethiopia in the next few months, as he would like me to travel with him to his village in Gojjam for his first reunion with his family  in over two years and, of course, since the surgery. I really hope that I can arrange to do that, as I am sure that will be an unforgettable experience.

In the meantime, I will continue to post updates on how Tesfaye's life is going back in Ethiopia as I receive them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Saying "goodbye" - this chapter in the Story ends

Over the course of the last week I have finally filled in details and added pictures to the posts for the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4th, Tesfaye's last week in Vancouver, and have done the same for our three nights and days in New York, up until our saying "goodbye" on October 7th.  If you have not yet read those postings, please do and you will see that Tesfaye, Nanci and I shared some wonderful experiences over that period of time, sadly knowing that the time we would have to say goodbye, at least for now, was fast approaching. Below is a recounting of our parting moment, and a brief outline of some related aspects of our subsequent time in Israel:

Wednesday afternoon, October 7th, 2009: "Au revoir", not "goodbye"
We made it back to Chloe's place after our morning errands but had to wait a few minutes for Chloe to arrive, and by then we had no time for any long goodbyes as to be safe we should have already been on our way to the airport. As it turns out, that was probably easier for both Tesfaye and us. Although it was an emotional farewell, it felt like less of a final goodbye than a French "au revoir" - a goodbye until we see each other again in the not too distant future; Nanci and I also felt grateful that we had the opportunity to spend so much special time with Tesfaye (and Azmera) in New York, knowing in the back of our minds that this time was coming. After our goodbye hugs and parting words, Nanci and I rushed back to our hotel, checked out, and jumped into a cab to Newark Airport New Jersey. It was our lucky day and we did not encounter any traffic snags, so we made it with time to spare (a rare occurrence for me).

October 8th to 21st, 2009: Spine research and Israel - Nanci and I had a great time in Israel, amongst other things: seeing a lot of friends including Jerus, the Israeli Ethiopian law student houseguest that stayed with us for a month until Sept. 15th (see blog postings from that period), our friend Micha Feldman

(a remarkable man and great friend to the Israeli Ethiopian community), and Netzanet, a lovely young orphaned Ethiopian woman that came into our lives through Micha;  relaxing and experiencing the wonderful  restaurants, "bauhaus" architecture and nightlife of Tel Aviv ( the "city that never sleeps"), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year; and spending a few days immersed in the unique historical and spiritual atmosphere of Jerusalem.  In addition to having fun and conducting a bit of business, Nanci and I  participated in a couple of days of Hebrew University (my second year alma mater) activities that in a way tied in with our experience with Tesfaye. At the inivitation of Hebrew University, a small group of people from Vancouver came to explore and further joint research initiatives planned between Hebrew U and VGH, UBC and Rick Hansen's Foundation. Part of our small group included Dr. Marcel Dvorak (who headed the VGH spine team that operated on Tesfaye), Stephen Owen (former Member of Parliament and current VP of UBC), and Rick Hansen (making his first return to Israel since his famous Man in Motion tour around the world in his wheelchair in the mid 1980's).

Amongst other things, we received presentations from Hebrew U/ Hadassah Hospital  researchers and Doctors about interesting research and studies being conducted by them about spinal cord issues, and attended an Israeli parliament committee meeting on children with disabilities and related accessiblity issues in Israel. It was a very busy few days for everyone, but also very stimulating and enjoyable; the amount of research coming out of an institution the size of Hebrew U is rather remarkable. It was also very nice getting to know our fellow group members better.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New York : A Bittersweet Goodbye - Part Two

Tuesday October 6th and Wednesday October 7th,2009: 
October 6th morning and afternoon - Bus Touring and New Specs:  After Monday October 5th's somewhat late evening we had a bit of a late start to the morning. We went to Chloe's and picked up Tesfaye and Azmera, who also slept in, and first went to lunch.  We headed in the direction of the Broadway Theatre where the Lion King is playing to see if tickets for the matinee were set aside for us. As I feared, Tuesday is a day when there is no matinee scheduled. When I spoke with Chloe she said she would look into the status of things and probably try to arrange tickets for the evening show, and in fact I then heard from Candice confirming we were all set up for the evening performance; I thanked her very much for her thoughtfulness, as Nanci and I had wanted to see the Lion King for a long time and thought it would be a great show for Tesfaye and Azmera to enjoy.

After sorting that out we first just sat around in the warm sun, Tesfaye and Azmera looking "cool" in their sunglassed,taking in the action in Times Square. Speaking of glasses, as Nanci and I had noticed before, Azmera's everyday prescription glasses that she obtained in Ethiopia were always sitting on a slant, and when I took them off and inspected them more closely you could see that they were all loose and the finish on the lenses appeared to be permanently scratched and have somewhat of a foggy film on them; we weren't quite sure what we could do about them, or if we had time to event try. We then decided to take up one of the street seller's bus tour promotions and do a Double Decker Bus tour of Manhattan from Midtown to Downtown, good for 24 hours with the ability to get on and off at different stops. Although sunny, there was a bit of a cool wind and I was wearing a very light shirt, but it was nice to sit on the upper deck nevertheless to fully appreciate the view.  The bus made it's way along the route of many of Manhattan's famous landmarks, and it was a great way for Tesfaye and Azmera to get a feel for the size, height, and hustle and bustle of  Manhattan.  While taking it all in, Nanci

and I again discussed what a shame it was for Azmera's glasses to be in such poor condition, especially since her eyesight is so poor.  On the spur of the moment we decided to try to find a "one hour" optical place to see if we could get her new glasses, and as I was in the midst of trying to find one through a google search our bus drove by an optical store with a "one hour" sign so immediately decided to jump off at the next stop. We walked back a few blocks to the store and asked if they could make a pair of glasses for Azmera in one hour (we were leaving New York the next afternoon). After getting a reading of Azmera's prescription from her glasses they said for a prescription like that it is not possible to do "one hour" glasses, but after checking they said they could have them ready by noon the following day.  We said: "let's do it!" They were very nice and proceeded to do a very thorough eye exam; it took a long time as she has a very strong and difficult prescription, with major astigmatism. I was sure that this would be a great upgrade for her and make her vision more precise than before. We had some fun picking out the new frames, and hoped that the glasses would be delivered  before Nanci and I had to leave for the airport tomorrow. The paradox of being fitted for new glasses is that if your eyes are bad you can't really tell how you look in new frames without lenses, so we took a picture of her wearing them on Nanci's blackberry and then showed it to her while wearing her old ones.

As it was now getting late in the afternoon, we then got back on the sight seeing bus when the next one came around, hoping that it would make it's way back to the Times Square area in time for us to make the 7 pm Lion King performance.  As it turned out, we made it back just in time to pick up the tickets at "will call" and were seated 5 minutes before the show started.  And what a wonderful show it was! The music, costumes, dancing and singing and overall ambience of the show was magical and captivating, and it gave Nanic and I extra pleasure to see the delight in the eyes of Tesfaye and Azmera.  After the show we went for a bite to a Pizza Restaurant near the theatre that my nephew Danny Miller recommended, and then returned our two young friends to Chloe's apartment.  To top off the evening, Nanci and I then bumped into my nephew and my sister Sandra and Norman Miller and their group of friends (in New York celebrating a number of their 60th birthdays), and I was swayed to join a number of the guys at a  Russion Vodka Bar; I did enjoy sampling a few different flavours of infused vodka, knowing full well that I may pay the price the next morning.

Wednesday morning, October 7th, 2009 - And now, the end is near...  The day when Nanci and I would have to bid farewell to Tesfaye had finally arrived.  We woke up reasonably early and finished our packing, and then gathere up Tesfaye and Azmera one last morning for breakfast and to accomplish two errands: picking up Tesfaye's Dutch transit visa and then dropping off an envelope Dr. Rick Hodes at the JDC office.  Being another nice and sunny day in Manhattan, we accomplished all those tasks on foot, walking quite a distance in the process. I must say that throughout the three days we spent in New York, Tesfaye and Azmera  did not balk at walking long distances. I am sure after undergoing such transformative surgery they have an extra appreciation that they are able to do it.  We were running a little late and so took a taxi back to Chloe's in order to drop off Tesfaye and Azmera and say our goodbyes. Our plane was leaving within an hour of Tesfaye's, but from different airports, so Chloe was going to be taking Tesfaye to the airport with her friend.  We had hoped that by the time we got to Chloe's, around 1pm, Azmera's new glasses would be delivered, but it was not to be. When I called the optiician they confirmed that the new glasses were on their way  by bike courier, but Nanci and I would just have to wait to hear how the finished version felt and wait until the next time we see her.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New York: A bittersweet goodbye - Part One

In this post and the previous one I catch up on our our amazing week with Tesfaye before heading to New York and the busy first couple of days in New York.

Sunday October 4th and Monday October 4th, 2009: As mentioned in my last capsule summary on September 30th concerning the week of Monday Sept. 28 to Sunday Oct. 4 (which was very recently filled in with more detail and pictures), Nanci and I left with Tesfaye on Sunday October 4th to New York after an extremely busy week leading up to that comprised of We Day on Tuesday and the African Children's Choir dinner Tuesday night, VGH thank you/Tesfaye farewell at our house Wednesday night, Arthritis Dinner Thursday night, and the Ronald McDonald House BC Gala dinner Saturday night; as usual, I left the packing for last minute and after doing a last minute cleanup at the office Saturday night after the RMHBC gala dinner, I ended up staying up all night until leaving for the Airport Sunday Oct. 4th at 6 am.

Sunday October 4th, 2009 - Happy Reunions

Tesfaye, Nanci and I arrived in NY Sunday night around 9 pm after a long day
of flying via Houston .  After dropping our bags off first at our hotel we  took Tesfaye straight to Chloe Malle's apartment where he would be staying in New York until leaving for Ethiopia the afternoon of the 7th. Chloe's apartment fortunately was only seven or eight blocks away from our hotel, right across from Central Park. What a wonderfully happy reunion Tesfaye had both with Chloe, who had recently volunteered in Ethiopia with Rick for a year or so and authored Tesfaye's life story that appears on the right side column of this blog, and with Azmera,a 14 year old girl who also has lived with Dr. Rick Hodes the
last couple of years and had corrective back surgery done successfully in Ghana by Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei (unlike Tesfaye, who was finally turned down by the anaesthesiologist for being too risky for there; in hindsight, based on the complications experienced post surgery in Vancouver, it was a prudent decision).
Azmera was brought to New York to tell her story to the audience at the Dr. Boachie fundraising dinner for his FOCOS Foundation (see  below about Monday evening's dinner). Azmera was sleeping on the sofa when we arrived, so we woke her up to see Tesfaye and it must have seemed like a dream for her to see the now upright and 7 inches taller Tesfaye. Azmera was also happy to see Nanci and me, as we had spent some time with her on our visit with Rick in March of 2008; she was still wearing the watch that Nanci had given her off of her wrist when Azmera had innocently seemed to be adimiring it. Eventually it was time for Nanci and me to head back to check in at our hotel. As Chloe had just started a new job with the New York Observer she was not going to be around for Azmera and Tesfaye, Nanci and I happily planned to spend all of Monday, Tuesday and half of Wednesday with Tesfaye and Azmera before leaving for the airport on our way to Israel.

Monday morning and afternoon October 5th, 2009 -  Dutch Consulate, Rockefeller Plaza, Central Park:

Monday morning I let Nanci sleep in a bit while I went to pick up Tesfaye and Azmera to accompany me to the Dutch consulate in order to get Tesfaye's transit visa for Amsterdam reissued. Unfortunately the visa that I had issued for Tesfaye in Vancouver was no longer good, as his flight from New York to Amsterdam had been moved up a week.Fortunately the Vancouver office of the Dutch consulate were very nice and in fact were aware of Tesfaye's story, so put in a good word to the New York Dutch consulate before I got there with a view to expediting the visa issuance process. Normally it would take five days, but they would try to do it within 2 days.
When we left the building, which is located in Rockefeller Plaza, we saw a big Fire Safety exhibition being put on by New York's finest fire fighting units for school children, so Tesfaye, Azmera and I hung around watching the activites and looking at the new and old fire trucks in the plaza; we also talked to a few fire men, which I am sure Nanci would have also enjoyed had she been there with us.
We then met up with Nanci for lunch, and after lunch decided to go on a Central Park horse and buggy ride.The weather was beautiful and we had a lovely time taking in the Central Park scenery;
you could tell it was a very enjoyable new experience for Tesfaye and Azmera.   

Monday evening October 4thThe Dr. Boachie Focos Foundation Dinner: Early Monday evening Nanci and I made our way to the Marriot Maruqis Hotel in Times Square where the Focos Foundation/Dr. Boachie dinner was being held, and Tesfaye was going to be brought there with Azmera by Chloe. As Nanci and I met up with Dr. Rick Hodes and were introduced to a number of people at the reception, we keenly awaited Tesfaye's arrival, anxious to witness his reunion with Dr. Rick and others that knew him, including little mischievous Danny.  Danny was another young man around seven years old that Rick had taken in to his home just weeks before we had visited Rick last March in Addis; Danny had succesfully been operated on in Ghana by Dr. Boachie and was now under the care  of Marilyn Berger Hewett, the N Y Times journalist that was writing a biography on Dr. Rick Hodes. Sadly, Marilyn's husband Don Hewitt, legendary producer of "Sixty Minutes", had passed away this past summer.  Danny was going to be entering school in the New York area. 

Finally Tesfaye arrived for the dinner reception with Chloe and Azmera, and I can tell you that it was truly wonderful to witness the affection displayed forTesfaye at the dinner as he reunited with Rick and with a number of people who fondly remembered  meeting him in Ethiopia or Ghana, and to see and hear the amazed reactions as to how wonderful he now looks. Tesfaye looked terrific dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and the black VGH Spine Program vest that was given to him at the dinner Nanci and I hosted the previous Wednesday night at our house. People who knew Tesfaye from before were so happy for Tesfaye  that he finally was able to have successful corrective spine surgery, as I heard again how remarkably upbeat, kind and helpful Tesfaye was to the other young patients on the spine ward in Ghana that were lucky enough to be having the surgery; this time I was hearing it firsthand from doctors and nurses that were present in Ghana the couple of times that Tesfaye  went there to have the desparately needed surgery done, only to ultimately be turned away due to the complicated nature of his case and potential post-op complications.

The dinner was a very nice and successful event, raising funds towards the new hospital Dr. Boachie's foundation is building in Ghana that would be able to handle more complicated cases like Tesfaye's. I was happy to have the opportunity to finally meet Dr. Boachie and his wife and learn more about his foundation's activities. There were a number of very inspiring speeches and video presentations, including Azmera presenting her speech about her life story and the big impact the surgery that Dr. Boachie performed on her back has had on her life and aspirations. Her history is a sad one, being abandoned by her father at the age of 8 years old at the hospital in Gonder up north, where she lived for three years. She then ended up at the Mother Theresa Mission in Addis Ababa where Dr. Rick Hodes eventually met her, took her in to live at his house, and eventually arranged for her to have the corrective spine surgery done by Dr. Boachie in Ghana. (Incidentally, another life changing event for her was when Rick gave her his glasses to try on and all of a sudden she could see things with some clarity like never before, and they realized that rather than being "slow" as she had been labelled, she is actually very bright but simply quite blind).  In any event, as Azmera said at the dinner, the surgery totally changed her outlook on life and she now has aspirations to become a doctor herself. There are so many stories like Tesfaye's and Azmera's, and fortunately between Dr. Rick Hodes work on the ground in Ethiopia and Dr. Boachie and his team's volunteer surgical work in Ghana, the lives of many such young individuals have been and continue to be transformed.

It was also a pleasure for Nanci and me to be able to meet Chloe's mother, the lovely and talented Candice Bergen, who also attended the dinner and had heard about Tesfaye; Candice has always been a favourite actress of mine, so I couldn't help but act like a fan and request a picture with her, Chloe and the three of us.  At some point we had mentioned to Chloe that we were going to look into taking Tesfaye and Azmera to a matinee Broadway Theatre production such as "Lion King" if possible, and when Candice heard that she graciously said she wanted to try to arrange it for us, and that she would be in touch the next day. After the dinner Nanci and I ended up staying quite late talking with Rick and a few of the guests that had lingered afterwards.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tesfaye's busy/interesting last week in Vancouver

Monday Sept. 28 to Sunday Oct. 4, 2009: 
 Monday Sept. 28 was Yom Kippur so most of my day was spent at Synagogue and fasting, and then Tesfaye joined us all for the breaking of the fast dinner at my parent's house, which gave Tesfaye the opportunity to see and say goodbye to a number of relatives and friends, some who had previously met him but had not yet seen him post surgery, and some who had heard about Tesfaye but had never met him.

Tuesday Sept. 29 was a big day for me and Tesfaye. During the day we attended We Day, an event put on
the last couple of years in Toronto by Free the Children, an organization founded by Craig and Marc Kielburger when Craig was just 12 yearsold, after Craig read a story about child labour in India and the assasination of a 12 year old Indian youth activist trying to lobby against it. My brother Lorne chaired this inaugural event in Vancouver, which brought in thousands of British Columbia high school students to GM Place for an awareness rally to inspire youth to commit service time and fundraising efforts to combat poverty and oppression and to promote education of youth in the developing countries and locally. There were a number of inspirational talks, videos and musical performances, including a most inspiring talk on compassion by the Dalai Lama himself. For Tesfaye it was a unique opportunity for him to see such a huge expression of interest and caring by the Western world, especially by our youth, targeted at people with exactly the kind of background that Tesfaye comes from.
There were a number of people that I knew that attended the event that also were able to meet Tesfaye for the first time. Afterwards I was able to introduce Tesfaye to the Kielburger brothers, and then as we walked back to the office we happened to bump into Janice,a student nurse who was working on the spine ward when Tesfaye was in the hospital; she was so happy to see him and to see how well he is doing.

Tuesday night September 29 we then attended another very inspiring event, a gala 25th anniversary dinner
celebrating the African Children's Choir, which was founded by human activist Ray Barnett and provides an avenue for advancement of vulnerable and disadvantaged African children through participating in a touring choir while at the same time receiving an education through their youth village schools. The choir"s performance was fantastic and we heard the story of a number of choir alumni that were in attendance, who have gone on to a wide array of occupations such as doctor, minister, teacher, journalist, lawyer and so on.

Sir Bob Geldoff received an award and gave a very impressive and moving "off the cuff" acceptance speech which both praised many efforts being done by organizations such as the African Children's Choir and certain countries to combat poverty, disease and illiteracy in the Developing World, and criticized the misplaced priorities of our world politicians in their allocation of funds .  We were able to meet Sir Bob Geldoff, as well as a surpirse guest performer with the Choir, Michael McDonald from the Doobie Brothers. All in all a very long but inspirational day for Tesfaye and me.

Wednesday night September 30 was the night Nanci and I hosted a Thank you VGH/ Farewell Tesfaye
dinner at our house. It was a great evening allowing us to express our gratitude to the VGH team that allowed this life altering surgery for Tesfaye to be carried out successfully, and for everyone to bid a formal farewell to Tesfaye. Tesfaye, in much improved English, went over his life story and expressed what the surgery has meant for him and his gratitude to the VGH. I also, at times overwhelmed with emotion, talked about Tesfaye's journey and my related journey leading up to today; about how wonderful the VGH team

was and how fortunate we are to have such quality care in Vancouver; about how thankful I am that we had such an incredibly successful result for Tesfaye; and how I am sure Tesfaye now has a bright future ahead of him. At the end Tesfaye proudly received from Lise and John a farewell gift of a coveted black fleece VGH Spine Unit Vest normally reserved for staff. I know that everyone in attendance appreciated the evening and the chance to mingle with each other and say "so long" to Tesfaye.

To cap off a most busy week, Thursday night Nanci and I attended a lovely and successful Arthritis Society fundraising gala, and on Saturday night, even though we had an early morning flight the next day, we attended a gala dinner in celebration of Ronald McDonal House BC, as I sit on the Board of that very worthwhile cause.

Sunday morning October 4th came very early; in fact, I was up all night packing and getting ready and did not bother sleeping as Jim kindly came to take Nanci, Tesfaye and me to the airport at 6am. It was a very emotional good bye for Jim and Tesfaye, and then off we were on a long day of flying through Houston to New York city.