Outreach to Ethiopia: Upstate otolaryngologists help restore hearing after ear infections

Using a flexible scope, Rick Kelley, MD, examines a patient's nasopharynx and voice box with Muluken Bekelle, MD, the first ear, nose and throat doctor Kelley trained in Ethiopia, equipping him with clinical and operating room instruments.

Using a flexible scope, Rick Kelley, MD, examines a patient’s nasopharynx and voice box with Muluken Bekelle, MD, the first ear, nose and throat doctor Kelley trained in Ethiopia, equipping him with clinical and operating room instruments. Photo by Sarah Stuart, MD.

Five years ago, Rick Kelley, MD, and his wife, Ashley, decided their home could hold more children. They looked into international adoption and wound up in Ethiopia.

Now they have three daughters and a son, ranging in age from 3 to 10 — along with a mission to help prevent hearing loss in the kids’ birth country.

Medical students in the Ethiopian city of Awassa examine a patient using an otoscope donated by Drs. Rick Kelley and Sam Woods, after the Upstate physicians demonstrated how to conduct the exam.

Medical students in the Ethiopian city of Awassa examine a patient using an otoscope donated by Drs. Rick Kelley and Sam Woods, after the Upstate physicians demonstrated how to conduct the exam. Photo by Sarah Stuart, MD.

Kelley, an associate professor of otolaryngology and communication sciences at Upstate, has made the 7,500-mile trek to Ethiopia a dozen times, providing medical care and making connections and plans for how to help. A variety of colleagues from the Syracuse area have accompanied him.

“Over the years it has grown, and what we’ve been able to accomplish and do has grown,” he says.

The country of Ethiopia has 10 ear, nose and throat doctors, located in the capital city of Addis Ababa, and 4 outside Addis, to look after 85 million people.

Kelley’s first trip to provide medical care was preceded by a radio announcement. Organizers told him to expect maybe 10 or 15 patients. Instead, about 250 people were there. Some had traveled for days to get there. More than 90 percent had ear disease and hearing loss.

“What we figured out on that very first trip is that although it may feel good to go on a medical trip and treat a couple hundred people, it’s really just a drop in the bucket,” Kelley says. He wanted to make a bigger, more lasting impact.

Charles "Sam" Woods, MD, takes Muluken Bekelle, MD, through an eardrum replacement surgery, called tympanoplasty, in Awassa, a city in Ethiopia.

Charles “Sam” Woods, MD, takes Muluken Bekelle, MD, through an eardrum replacement surgery, called tympanoplasty, in Awassa, a city in Ethiopia. Photo by Sarah Stuart, MD.

Back in Syracuse, he enlisted the help of Sam Woods, MD, a colleague and fellow ear, nose and throat doctor at Upstate who specializes in hearing loss and disorders of the ear.

When Ethiopians get ear infections, they aren’t necessarily able to get to doctors for

Otolaryngologist Asnake Kassa, MD,  gave a talk at Upstate as part of his visit to America this fall. He presented case studies of patients and discussed Ethiopia's medical schools (there are three) and otolaryngology residency programs (there are none). In the background is Rick Kelley, MD.

Otolaryngologist Asnake Kassa, MD, gave a talk at Upstate as part of his visit to America this fall. He presented case studies of patients and discussed Ethiopia’s medical schools (there are three) and otolaryngology residency programs (there are none). In the background is Rick Kelley, MD. Photo by Susan Keeter.

antibiotics; a huge portion of the population lives a rural life, walking everywhere. Untreated, ear infections can lead to perforated eardrums, which cause hearing loss of 45 to 50 percent. Caught early, surgery can repair perforated eardrums and restore hearing.

Woods realized “if we did nothing else but train some of the otolaryngologists there to repair eardrums, that would make a huge different for these people.” So that’s what he has done.

Kelley, Woods and other physicians become mentors to the physicians from Ethiopia, teaching the fine points of how to examine and diagnose ear disease and hearing loss. They are developing training programs in audiology for hearing testing, and they are supporting surgical training in otolaryngology.

Partners for Global Hearing – the name of their nonprofit – acquires equipment for training and care centers and is working to establish ear/hearing clinics in different zonal capitals. The organization’s largest expense is for shipping equipment and supplies to Ethiopia. Doctors pay their own travel expenses, and there are no administrative costs.

Woods says he volunteers mostly because “these people are so thankful.”

Kelley feels likewise. “It kind of reinvigorates why we went into medicine in the first place,” he says. “You get there, and it boils down to you and the patient and your ability to help.”

Learn more about Partners for Global Hearing at HLP-Ethiopia.org. HLP stands for Hearing Loss Prevention. The group also has a Facebook presence.

Hear an interview with Drs. Kelley and Woods about their outreach to Ethiopia

Teaching students about ear anatomy and disease at Hawassa University during a trip in 2011.

Teaching students about ear anatomy and disease at Hawassa University during a trip in 2011.

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