Ugandan Teenager Smiling Days After Complex Spine Surgery

Billings (Mont.) Gazette—October 26, 2011

Roger Ssembatya has suffered more trials in 15 years than most people experience in a lifetime.

But on Wednesday, the Ugandan youth had only words of thanks for the many people who have helped him on his journey of healing.

Standing on both sides of Roger's bed were two key players in his journey: Nadine Hart, a physician assistant at St. Vincent, and Terry Fettig, his American guardian.

Roger's story goes back to his early childhood in the village of Bugogge, where he suffered a bout of tuberculosis of the spine. The untreated illness gradually bent his spine nearly in half, making walking impossible and breathing increasingly difficult.

Hart consulted with Dr. Gregory McDowell, an orthopedic surgeon with Ortho Montana in Billings.

"I've seen pediatric deformity for about 20 years, but this is the worst case that I had seen," McDowell said Saturday morning, a day after he helped perform surgery on Roger.

The diagnosis was post-tubercular kyphosis, a spinal deformity, in which Roger's spine was bent at about 160 degrees. It compressed his spinal cord, causing near paralysis and restricting his breathing.

Such a deformity is "extraordinarily rare" in Montana, McDowell said. So he asked Dr. Oheneba Boachie, a renowned spinal surgeon McDowell knows in New York City, if he'd be willing to see Roger.

Boachie, an orthopedic spine deformity surgeon, works at Hospital for Special Surgery.

"I'd consider him our leading surgeon, certainly in the United States if not the world, in managing this sort of problem," McDowell said.

So Fettig and Hart took Roger to New York City. Boachie evaluated Roger's condition and agreed not only to perform surgery, but to travel to Billings and operate at St. Vincent, all at his own expense.

McDowell assisted Boachie in the complicated surgery on Friday. During the vertebral column resection, a portion of the spine was removed, and the spine was realigned and fused. Boachie was pleased with how it went.

"He's a tough kid, he did very well," Boachie said Saturday.

Healing will take six months to a year, Boachie said. But he sees a positive prognosis for the boy.

Read the full story at billingsgazette.com.

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