A selfless spine specialist at the renowned Texas Back Institute travels halfway around the world every year with a team of dedicated volunteers to Ethiopia to perform some of the most complex spine surgeries in the most challenging of circumstances. For his relentless pursuit of life-changing surgery to patients who are critically disabled with spinal deformities such as scoliosis, Dr. Ted Belanger was recently named 2018 Medical Missions.Org Physician of the Year. In typical fashion, Dr. Belanger was humbled by the international honor.
“I was nominated by a colleague for this award for the work I have been doing for the last nine years,” Dr. Belanger said. “I have an annual mission to Ethiopia where I perform free spine surgeries, primarily for advanced spinal conditions and deformities such as scoliosis, and treatments for tuberculosis, traumas and infections. We have also been fortunate enough to bring some patients from Africa to the United States who needed more extensive procedures.
“Since 2010, when we started this mission, we have done surgery on more than 125 patients in Ethiopia. Plus, we have transported five other patients to this country for procedures.
“The committee from Medical Missons.Org felt that these actions qualified for the “Physician of the Year” award and I am humbled by their decision.”
The annual mission to treat patients in Ethiopia involves the coordination of many “moving parts.”
“There is an entire team of volunteers, including my wife, involved in this effort,” Dr. Belanger said. “Before we land in the country, there is a great deal of planning beforehand. We have a tremendous amount of communication with local Ethiopian doctors and healthcare personnel. They help organize the patients who need the kind of advanced spinal care that we provide.
“We also spend a lot of time gathering equipment and medical supplies, such as spine implants, donated from various suppliers. Some of these supplies are shipped before we arrive, and some have been stored in a facility in Africa over the years that we have been doing this mission.
“Our trips are usually 2 weeks long and we try to ‘squeeze-in’ as much surgery as possible during this time. There are literally 500-600 new potential patients each year who require advanced back or neck surgery and we can only scratch the surface of that population. On our most successful trip, we were able to operate on 30 patients. It can be very taxing.
“There is an enormous amount of coordination and logistics associated with this annual trip and we rely on the help of dozens of people in order to pull this off.”
Working in Challenging Conditions Has Made Dr. Belanger a Better Surgeon
“The level of surgical complexity among the patients in Africa is far greater than what you might see in the average practice in America,” Dr. Belanger said. “Some of the most difficult medical procedures I have ever seen in my career, I have completed in Ethiopia with extremely limited resources.
“I draw on my skills and knowledge as a spine trauma surgeon that I learned in this country, but my skills, knowledge and confidence has grown tremendously since I have undertaken these trips to Ethiopia. It has been very gratifying and has made me a better doctor.”
A Life Changing Experience for Ethiopian Kids Who Have Been Transported to the U.S. for Surgery
The five patients who Dr. Belanger has brought to this country have had their lives changed forever.
“We have had five Ethiopian patients who underwent surgery in Plano,” Dr. Belanger said. “These patients were transported here because their conditions were more complicated than what I could treat in Africa.
“Usually, it is more practical for me to go there and bring along the equipment and supplies that I need. However, in more complicated situations, it is not possible for me to bring along the specialized equipment to perform those procedures.
“With the help from a wide range of people – host families who allow these patients to recover in their homes along with hospital systems that allow us to use their facilities free of charge – we have been able to bring state-of-the-art medical care to patients who would never be able to get this in their home country.”
Follow-Up is Extremely Rewarding
After this life-changing surgery, Dr. Belanger and his team maintain contact with these patients.
“We are in constant contact, via Facebook, with several of these patients,” he said. “Plus, when we travel to Africa, we try and see every patient that we have treated over the years. It’s getting more and more difficult to see all of these patients because we have treated so many. However, the most recently treated patients are always seen to check their recovery.
“I am happy to note that the five teenagers that we have brought to this country and performed surgery are all doing great. They are reintegrating into their communities and their lives have been changed for the better.
“When a patient has had a severe spinal deformity such as scoliosis and this is corrected with surgery, it is physically and emotionally transformative. Their appearance is, of course, improved but, more importantly, their demeanor is completely different. It’s very cool to see them with more smiles, exuding confidence and even the way they walk! We have changed their lives by straightening out their back.”
How Can You Help?
Dr. Belanger’s mission requires many volunteers and a great deal of expense every year, and he had developed a system for everyday people to contribute to this effort.
“We work with a non-profit organization called Conscience International. By clicking on this link and locating the Ethiopian Mission on the site, contributions can be made to further our efforts.
To hear the complete interview with Dr. Ted Belanger, click the SpineTalk below.