Thanks to Portland family, Ethiopian woman now has hope for the future
Published: Thursday, July 29, 2010, 8:20 PM Updated: Thursday, July 29, 2010, 9:00 PM
The sun hadn’t yet risen Wednesday when Yodit Derese’s life began to change.
The 25-year-old Ethiopian woman’s eyes flicked back and forth nervously as one doctor after another hovered over her, checking her vital signs and asking about her health history.
Derese, dressed in a lavender hospital gown, said through an interpreter that she never thought this day would arrive.
“I’m really, really happy,” she said.
Her feelings, she said, alternated between anxiety and excitement — excitement for a new life, one free of a malformed foot. Soon, she would be able to run, to dance, to walk long distances. At her bedside stood Hilary and Eric Shreves, the North Portland couple who helped make surgery possible.
Finally, after two hours of examinations and waiting, Derese was ready. She gripped and kissed her prayer book as she was wheeled into the hallway and through the doors of an operating room at St. Vincent Medical Center.
“There she goes,” said Hilary. “I just really can’t believe this day happened.”
Nearly every step in Derese’s life has caused her pain. But it’s hard to tell. She takes care to hide her condition and has only a slight limp.
“I’m trying my best,” she said at a doctor’s appointment several weeks ago.
“She’s good at that,” Hilary said.
Each year, an estimated 200,000 children worldwide are diagnosed with clubfoot, according to CURE International, a nonprofit in Pennsylvania that establishes hospitals for children with crippling disabilities.
The congenital condition causes one or both feet to twist out of place. While most U.S. cases are treated in infancy, children born in developing countries often don’t have access to surgery, CURE spokesman Noel Lloyd said.
Derese was lucky, receiving four surgeries as a child in Ethiopia. But over time, her right foot grew the wrong way. Now it’s what Hans Moller, her orthopedic surgeon in Portland, calls an overcorrected clubfoot. Only the heel and outside edge of her right foot touch the ground.
“Eventually, it will break down and lead to, at best, amputation,” Moller said.
Back home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Derese endures a condition that is more than a disability. She couldn’t work; she once held a job breaking rocks into gravel, earning the equivalent of $16 a month, but the pain in her foot was too much to bear. Marriage was out of the question. Because walking was her only option for getting around, she often spent her days sitting.
Life hasn’t been easy in other ways. She lost both parents as a child and was left to care for a younger sister, Naomi, until poverty forced Derese to take her to an orphanage.
Then a door opened. The Shreveses adopted Naomi and set in motion a plan to transform Derese’s life, too.
Eric Shreves will never forget the day he met Derese in 2005. She invited him to her mud hut for coffee just before he was to return to the U.S. with Naomi.
“I was really surprised at the bond I shared with her right away,” Eric said. “I was struck by how graceful and humble she is.”
Eric and Hilary had learned about Derese just a few weeks before. Hilary’s parents tried to adopt Derese, but at 19, she was too old. Still, the family vowed to help her.
“There was definitely a sense of urgency,” Eric said. “She’s part of the family; we couldn’t just leave her in Ethiopia.”
The couple set up a fund to feed Derese through the orphanage where they adopted Naomi, now 14, and two other children, 8-year-old Eli and 6-year-old Sophia. They also have two biological children, Isaac, 4, and Charlotte, 20 months. Next, they looked for a way to bring Derese to Portland for treatment.
Through their pediatrician, the Shreveses met Shandy Welch, a nurse practitioner at St. Vincent and the wife of Moller. Together, Welch and Moller assembled a team of doctors and physical therapists who donated their services — services normally worth about $20,000.
“This is when you realize you are part of something so much bigger,” Welch said. “It brings back your belief in humanity.”
Donations from the community quickly dispelled money worries. But in 2009, the U.S. government denied two applications for a medical visa. The first time, officials cited fears that Derese wouldn’t return because she has no family or job in Ethiopia. The second time, they gave no reason.
Still, no one considered giving up, Welch said. “I have been so committed; I will not stop until she gets this surgery,” she said. “It was Hilary and I, working step by step, trying to figure out what we needed to do.”
The Shreveses contacted U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who told them about “humanitarian parole,” granted through the Department of Homeland Security, most often for medical care. Applicants get only one chance to be accepted.
With donations, the Shreveses hired an immigration attorney, who helped Derese apply for humanitarian parole last December. Family and friends waited and worried. “We were desperate because we knew Yodit was stuck in Ethiopia,” Hilary said. Finally, in June, they learned she was in.
“Both of us are screaming on the phone and jumping up and down,” Welch said. “We got her a ticket to come to Portland a week later.”
Derese arrived June 18, greeted by the family that supported her, the friends who prayed for her and the sister she hadn’t seen in four years.
“We were waiting for 2 1/2 hours,” Naomi said. “It was very emotional.”
A community of volunteers has offered more help. Pat Conrad, a former English as a Second Language teacher at Franklin High School, is among language tutors. Linguava Interpreters donated staff. A dentist gave Derese her first teeth-cleaning.
“We’re just so grateful,” Hilary said. “It’s like, oh my gosh, the world can be a really good place.”
In a waiting room at St. Vincent on Wednesday, Eric and Hilary got word that Derese’s three-hour surgery was complete and that everything had gone as planned.
“She woke up smiling,” Moller told them.
That afternoon, Derese flashed another smile as the Shreveses’ five children adorned her room with drawings. Thursday, family and friends cheered as Derese used crutches to walk in a hospital hallway.
“She’s doing it!” Naomi exclaimed.
A plaster cast will stay on for eight weeks. Then she’ll face more physical therapy and possibly more surgery.
Derese’s long-term future is a less clear. The humanitarian parole will allow her to stay in Portland until mid-December. Still, the Shreveses hope to help her pursue her goal of a nursing degree.
At the very least, though, “we’ll know that her quality of life will improve in Ethiopia,” Hilary said. “Hopefully, she’ll be able to provide for herself and be able to function in society.”
When Derese talks about how grateful she is, her face softens and her eyes well with tears.
“I don’t have words to say how thankful I am,” she said. “I will tell this story as long as I live.”