Dr. Theodore Belanger has been making an annual pilgrimage to Ethiopia since 2010, not to visit the African country on vacation, but to volunteer his time and expertise by performing complicated back surgeries on kids and young adults in the country who have severe back issues.
As a result of his medical missions, the spine, scoliosis and complex deformity surgeon from the Texas Back Institute in Rockwall was recently recognized with two awards. Belanger was named MedicalMissions.Org Physician of the Year and also received the Frist Humanitarian Award for the second time.
“It’s always an honor to be recognized and it’s very humbling all at the same time,” Belanger said. “We do what we do because it enriches our lives and I want to give back and pay it forward.”
His medical mission work in Ethiopia started in the summer of 2010 when he traveled to Ethiopia with a colleague who had a connection to a retired U.S physician working in the country, Rick Hodes. Since that initial trip, Belanger began to explore how he could continue providing his expertise to those in Ethiopia.
“I met a few key people and they asked me if I could do spine surgery there,” he recalled. “I started knocking on doors and asking implant companies about the possibility of donating free equipment for the use of surgery and surgical instruments and everything else that you need, and then I asked other key healthcare providers if they could provide their services and expertise in certain ways and other volunteers, like my brother, and other people. I was surprised at how easy it was to get together a lot of yeses and a lot of help and so then we started going.”
Belanger and the Conscience International Ethiopia Project, of which he is the physician team leader, coordinate with Hodes to select and prepare patients for the two or three week trip the team makes. After condensing a long list of possible candidates and preparing for the surgeries, Belanger and the group travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to the Myung Sung Christian Medical Center. Once there, they collaborate with the hospital staff to carry out the lengthy procedures.
“In the beginning it was like nine cases and 11 cases and it seemed like every year we could squeeze in more and we just got better and more efficient at it,” Belanger said. “Last year was our record; I was lucky to have more surgeon help than ever before. There was another deformity surgeon in addition to three other surgeons and we did 29 cases. I don’t know that we’ll ever beat that, unless we go for longer than two weeks.”
In addition to all the planning and coordinating that goes into the work done abroad, Belanger gets the opportunity to meet with previous patients during his trips to Ethiopia.
“It is very emotional. I don’t think that ever, in all the years we’ve been doing this, that I haven't cried in the clinic seeing some of them,” he said of his patients. “They are lit up with a big smile and some of them I had never seen smile before that encounter. So it really is very moving and emotional and it keeps me coming back.”
The Conscience International Ethiopia Project team includes his wife, who coordinates a lot of the details regarding the trip to Ethiopia and their stay there as she usually travels with Belanger.
“She’s as involved in this or more than me and so she’s constantly working,” he said. “She put together the calendar, and she’s emailing back and forth everyday with volunteers and organizing travel plans and the hotel, visas, and all the zillion things I don’t have time to do.”
Currently, Belanger and the team are organizing the last details of the trip as they prepare to head back to Ethiopia later this month for another round of surgeries, this time with the help of another deformity surgery from Lithuania.
“We’ve already got the schedule mapped out,” he said. “We have on the books, I think, 18 patients lined up. Which is a lot but, I think it’s going to be great.”