Meet Dr. Belay Abegaz, Founder of Ethiopia's First Cardiac Center
Photos: Dr. Belay Abegaz (left); Cardiac Center - Ethiopia (right)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 1, 2009 (Ezega.com) -- The First Cardiac Center in Ethiopia was inaugurated on February 12, 2009. This nonprofit hospital specializes in heart diseases and is especially committed to helping children with Cardiac problems. Ezega.com interviewed Dr. Belay Abegaz, the founder and Board Chairman of Children’s Heart Fund of Ethiopia. Dr Belay studied medicine in the United States of America and specialized in Pediatric Cardiology before returning home to practice medicine twenty seven years ago.
Sindu Alemu sat down with Dr. Belay in his office last week and talked with him about how he founded the hospital, his background, his future plans, and much more. Here follows the full interview with Dr. Belay Abegaz.
Ezega.com: Dr. Belay, thank you for interviewing with us at Ezega.com.
Dr. Belay: No problem at all.
Ezega.com: For over 22 years the Children’s Heart Fund of Ethiopia has been helping children who have heart problems by sending them abroad, while hundreds of other children waited for their turn. Now this cardiac center has started admitting patients. Can you tell us its capacity and the percentage of patients that it can treat in Ethiopia?
Dr. Belay: I cannot put it in percentage terms at this stage. But there is no doubt we can double or may be even triple the number of people we can treat here. During the first year, we will not ramp up our operations that fast, because we still don’t have enough trained manpower to do this, and we have to train experts in this field. But during the second and third years, I hope we will ramp up our operations and handle more cases. Many children will then get the chance to be treated in their homeland.
Ezega.com: How much does it normally cost to treat one child abroad?
Dr. Belay: It costs more than 9,000USD per child. As you know, this is difficult and unaffordable for many Ethiopian parents.
Ezega.com: What motivated you to build the Cardiac Center in Ethiopia? Is it because it is related to your education or there is more to that?
Dr. Belay: No, it was not just because of my background. When I was 30 years old I decided to become Cardiologist. I then had realized the immensity of the problem. In Ethiopia, it is estimated that 50,000 children are born with heart disease every year. Another 50,000-60,000 children who had normal heart at birth develop heart disease at some point in their life. The question is, should we simply watch as these children die every year just because they were born in Ethiopia? Because surgical treatment for these children was not available in Ethiopia and the cost for treatment abroad is unthinkable, we had to build a cardiac center here. So, I decided to return to Ethiopia and work on it. Actually, I didn’t expect to see this built in my lifetime but, thank God, I have seen it with my own eyes.
Ezega.com: I understand that it took around thirty one years to build this center. What were the main problems that it took so long?
Dr. Belay: Yes it took so long. But, I don’t blame anyone for that. May be it is because I didn’t work hard enough on it. One reason was that we had a problem collecting the money which was given to us by many individuals and organizations. So, we didn’t have enough money to speed up construction.
Ezega.com: Was there a time when you almost gave up because it took so long?
Dr. Belay: No, never. I am not a quitter by nature. You can blame me for other weaknesses but not on this one. If I decide to do something, I can stick with it until it is done.
Photos: Gizachew Abena after surgery (left) and the Operating Room (right)
Ezega.com: So far, twenty children and two adults have received heart surgery in this center. What was your feeling when you did the first surgery in the presence of Sheik Mohamed Ali Al-Amoudi?
Dr. Belay: In the first place, I wasn’t sure of his coming until I saw him in my office. When he saw the kid who was going to have the surgery, the expression on Sheik Mohamed Ali Al-Amoudi’s face was different. He became nervous and then silent; his eyes told me a lot at that moment, and it showed me his kindness. The second and touchy moment was when the kid woke up from anesthesia. His mom and grandma were there. That was the most emotional moment for me. That was what I missed for the past 27 years. When we send our kids abroad, no one is there with them. I sent more than 108 children on my own before the Children’s Heart Fund of Ethiopia was established. I have seen many children cured, and I always feel relieved when I see the kids healthy. But this one was the most unforgettable moment of my life. I have no word for it.
Ezega.com: Your center gives 75% of its services to children and 25% to adults. What was the reason for this allocation?
Dr. Belay: There is no special reason for this. When I first decided to build the center, my main aim was to provide heart surgery for children. Through time, adults have also been coming to get treatment. So, now, we offer services to patients ranging from 3-45 years of age.
Ezega.com: Do you treat all kinds of heart problems in your center?
Dr. Belay: No, we don’t treat all heart patients. We treat only patients who need surgery and are referred to us from various healthcare establishments in different parts of the country.
Ezega.com: Given the effort it took to establish this center, do you think the country needs to start thinking about building another one any time soon?
Dr. Belay: As I have mentioned earlier, we had a problem in collecting funds donated to us. But the main problem was convincing the Ethiopian people. It is hard to do that when you don’t have something to show. Now people have seen where their money was spent. I am sure building another one will be a lot easier than the first one. We can see the increased level of commitment in people. Addis Ababa needs more than five cardiac centers, let alone the country. So, I call on the people of Ethiopia to work together not only for the expansion of the existing center but also for other activities as well.
Ezega.com: During the opening ceremony, PM Meles promised that the government will contribute towards building the first Heart Research Center in Africa, budgeting 7 million USD. What will be the benefit of this research center?
Dr. Belay: Well, we will see how much that will cost. But if God helps us and this dream comes true, it will contribute a lot to world science and put Ethiopia not only on the map of Africa but also of the world. We are not planning to have research on every kind of heart disease. We want to conduct research on Rheumatic heart disease which is caused by throat infection or tonsillitis. This disease is common in our country especially among children. It doesn’t have any vaccination at the moment but we expect to get one in the future. So, if we get the vaccination, it will be breakthrough.
Ezega.com: I heard you saying that many of your dreams have come true and establishing this center was the biggest dream of your life. Do you have other dreams too?
Dr. Belay: When I was twenty two years old, I said I would have my last child when I reach thirty years of age and he will be going to have his first degree when I reach fifty. I dreamt of building this center when I was around thirty. Many of my dreams, including these ones, have come true. But I still have other dreams too. Building the Heart Research Center is my next big dream.
Ezega.com: I see you praising God and attributing your success to God often. Do you want to say more on that?
Dr. Belay: I think God always favors me. When I was in grade nine, I didn’t even have a shoe and I was almost dying, He brought me back to life. Now, look at where he has put me. Earlier, we talked about how many of my dreams have come true. In view of this, I think it will be unfair if I thank him just like everybody else. So, I thank him differently. I thank him for favoring me more than others.
Ezega.com: I understand that, among your family members, eleven are Doctors, including your two sons. What is the reason behind this?
Dr. Belay: As I told you earlier, He (God) favors me and my family. We are blessed. That’s all I can say.
Ezega.com: Do you attribute some to your effort and dedication?
Dr. Belay: It might be there but for me it is because God blessed me and my family.
Ezega.com: Finally, you have been married for thirty six years and you have been quoted crediting your wife for your success. Could you please tell me more on this?
Dr. Belay: She helps me in every way possible. There is a saying “behind every successful man is a strong woman.” Without her, I couldn’t have achieved all of this. Everything I have done couldn’t have been done. I thank her for this with all my heart.
Ezega.com: Again, I thank you very much for your time.
Dr. Belay: I thank you, too, for your effort to bring this work to the public.
This article was written by Sindu Alemu reporting for Ezega.com from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can be reached by email at News@Ezega.com. The article can be reprinted in full or in part elsewhere but only by giving full credit to Ezega.com. If posted on a website, we ask that you place this active link on your website: Ezega Ethiopian News, pointing to http://www.Ezega.com.