As recently as 2000, Ethiopia — a country of more than 112 million people — had exactly two neurologists. Two. That thought was particularly troubling to one young neurologist from North America. So much so that after reading an article about Ethiopia's sad state of neurological affairs by another neurologist who'd been trying to turn that around, he asked to join the humanitarian effort.
That young neurologist was James Bower, M.D., now chair of the Division of Movement Disorders in Mayo Clinic's Department of Neurology in Rochester. And what he saw during his first trip to Ethiopia haunted him. "They were still very, very undeveloped because so much money had been spent on the war with Eritrea," Dr. Bower tells Neurology Today. "There was just one CT scanner in the entire country, and it was predominantly nonfunctional."
Seeing that, Dr. Bower knew he'd found his "calling" as a physician. "It occurred to me after three or four years of visiting Ethiopia that it was my favorite two weeks of the year," he tells Neurology Today. "I realized that I should develop this into an academic pursuit."
So he has, even taking "a sabbatical from Mayo to obtain a master's degree in tropical medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine" to better serve, influence and improve neurological care in Ethiopia. He's worked closely with Ethiopian neurologist Guta Zenebe, M.D. — who Dr. Bower credits with having "really spearheaded the development of neurology" in the country. Today, just two decades later, Dr. Bower tells Neurology Today that the people of Ethiopia now have access to "many CT scans" as well as "countless MRIs."
It's a reversal of fortune that recently compelled the American Academy of Neurology to honor Dr. Bower with its Global Health/Humanitarian Award for his ongoing work alongside Dr. Zenebe. And although the award has his name on it, Dr. Bower tells us he shares it with Mayo Clinic colleagues Julie Hammack, M.D., and Paola Sandroni, M.D., who have been accompanying him to Ethiopia every year for the past decade.
Dr. Sandroni tells us for her, the annual trips to Ethiopia are about honoring an ongoing commitment to improving the state of global health care wherever and whenever possible. "We've made a commitment to them, and they do still need our help," she says. That help has included donating books and medical tools, as well as developing a comprehensive neurology learning program for local physicians.
Dr. Sandroni tells us that effort will forever mean the most to her. "The day the first class graduated from that program, we were all in tears," she says. "It's been really fun to see and watch how much they've grown over the years. They've become like extended family to us."
You can read more about Drs. Bower, Hammack, and Sandroni's humanitarian work in Ethiopia here. Then be sure to let us know what you think by sharing your comments below before using the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.