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GMC doc helps Ethiopian man get life-saving heart surgery

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan In April Dr. Michael Lipsitt, center, and his wife Jeanne, left, were in Gondar, Ethiopia on a mission trip with Jewish Healthcare International where they met Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, right, and wanted to help him. Eyasu, 29, of Gondar came to America to have a triple heart valve replacement surgery performed by cardiac surgeon Dr. David Langford at Gwinnett Medical Center. The Lipsitt's of John's Creek have hosted Eyasu and his translator Muluken Messele during their one month stay in the United States as seen in this photograph taken on Wednesday.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan In April Dr. Michael Lipsitt, center, and his wife Jeanne, left, were in Gondar, Ethiopia on a mission trip with Jewish Healthcare International where they met Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, right, and wanted to help him. Eyasu, 29, of Gondar came to America to have a triple heart valve replacement surgery performed by cardiac surgeon Dr. David Langford at Gwinnett Medical Center. The Lipsitt's of John's Creek have hosted Eyasu and his translator Muluken Messele during their one month stay in the United States as seen in this photograph taken on Wednesday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Cardiologist Dr. Michael Lipsitt, left, listens to Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, center, share his story beside translator Muluken Messele outside Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville Monday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, 29, of Gondar, Ethiopia poses for a portrait Wednesday, touching the scars that remain after his recent triple heart valve replacement surgery performed by cardiac surgeon Dr. David Langford at Gwinnett Medical Center on Nov. 1. Prior to the surgery Eyasu could barely walk due to his faulty heart valves.

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Special Photo: Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, 29, of Gondar, Ethiopia recovers from triple heart valve replacement surgery performed by cardiac surgeon Dr. David Langford at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville on Nov. 1. Standing at Eyasu's bedside is his friend and translator Muluken Messele.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Dr. Michael Lipsitt and his wife Jeanne talk their dogs Sophie and Jack for a walk with Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos, right, and translator Muluken Messele, center, at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Sandy Springs Wednesday. Prior to the surgery Eyasu could barely walk due to his faulty heart valves.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- He grins, chuckles and shakes his head vehemently, speaking quickly through a translator to answer the innocent-enough question.

Eyasu Minas Woldekirkos says he was not afraid, not of the roughly 7,700-mile journey from his native Ethiopia, or of the complicated cardiac surgery that awaited once he arrived in Lawrenceville.

He was in God's hands, he says.

"I didn't have any fear," Eyasu said this week through countryman Muluken Messele, a pharmacist nurse who made the cross-continental trip at his side. "I believed that the whole process, that everything was well-arranged. I believed in this doctor and these people."

"Dr. Lipsitt and everybody, the whole team around him," he added, "has born me for the second time."

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Dr. Michael Lipsitt was in Gondar, Ethiopia, in April, on a mission trip with Jewish Healthcare International. He and others were screening Ethiopian Jews, determining their medical needs prior to their pilgrimage to Israel.

As is fairly standard practice, Lipsitt's days ended with "social consults" -- a quick look at other would-be patients in the community. That's when the GMC-affiliated cardiologist first met Eyasu.

"He didn't want to let on that he was in desperate shape," Lipsitt said this week.

Eyasu, 29 years old and trained as a mechanic, was supposed to be the sole provider for his family. To hear Muluken, the translator, tell it, he was bedridden with rheumatic heart disease.

He couldn't make it up two steps of stairs without a break to catch his breath. He could barely walk anywhere.

"He was not even able to raise his head up from his bed," Muluken said.

Lipsitt performed a pair of echocardiograms (ultrasounds of the heart). Eyasu had at least two faulty heart valves, and Lipsitt wasn't sure how he was alive.

"Our first thought was, no, we can't possibly fix this situation," he said.

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Rheumatic heart disease is typically the result of rheumatic fever, which in turn is typically caused by an untreated streptococcal infection like strep throat.

A simple penicillin shot would have likely prevented the deterioration of Eyasu's leaky heart valves, which Lipsitt said were "three times the size that I have ever seen."

"In this country, he would never have even gotten valvular heart disease," Lipsitt said, "and you just feel so helpless."

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Feeling helpless, it turned out, would not stop Lipsitt from trying.

Through the help of Muluken back in Ethiopia, Jewish Healthcare International and the office of local U.S. Representative Tom Price, Lipsitt was able to help Eyasu get a visa to come to America.

"We had some email communication for like five or six months," Muluken said. "He arranged everything and brought us."

Eyasu and Muluken arrived in Atlanta on Oct. 27 (after a stop in Washington, D.C., on the day before Superstorm Sandy hit).

Their "visit" was predicated on a very complicated surgery, one that would ultimately be a triple heart valve replacement. Lipsitt knew just the man -- Dr. David Langford, one of the head cardiac surgeons at Gwinnett Medical Center's Strickland Heart Center, which is less than a year old.

Langford had never performed a triple valve replacement, but had practiced at Atlanta's St. Joseph's Hospital for nearly 20 years. He had operated on Lipsitt's father about a decade earlier.

"He had no idea what he was getting into," Lipsitt said.

On Nov. 1, Eyasu went under the knife. It ended up being about a 10-hour procedure.

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Eyasu's words, translated and delivered by Muluken in better-than-broken English, are striking.

"The difference is huge, like the difference between the sky and the earth," he said this week. "Before the surgery, I wouldn't even try to go up two stairs. Now I can go whatever is the distance upward, and up and down for a very long distance."

Since his surgery, the man who could barely walk has spent hours and hours cruising the Big Creek Greenway near the Lipsitts' home in Johns Creek, where he and Muluken will be staying until they depart for home on Tuesday.

When he was first released from the hospital, he sprinted up and down the many sets of stairs at the Lipsitts' more than once. During their visit, Eyasu and Muluken have been to the Georgia Aquarium, the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, a Gwinnett Gladiators hockey game and the top of Stone Mountain.

On the trails, Dr. Lipsitt's wife, Jeanne, has to convince Eyasu to just stop walking.

"I can't get him to stop," she laughed. "By the time he leaves he'll have walked all over the place."

Sitting at a picnic table outside Gwinnett Medical Center this week -- among the foliage he's seeing change colors for the first time in his life -- Eyasu's enthusiastic response to a question about the difference pre- and post-surgery went on and on.

His hands moved as fast as his mouth, gesturing far above his head and all the way back down to the ground.

"He's saying again and again," Muluken explained, "that I am born for the second time from these people, and I have no words to explain these feelings. The difference is very huge."

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On Wednesday, Eyasu will be home.

He'll be able to walk about Gondar, a city rich in Ethiopian history and more than 200,000 residents. He'll be able to climb those long-elusive stairs.

Most importantly, he'll be able to work and support his family.

While he's been in touch with them since his surgery, he said they're still a little wary -- they're not quite sure if he's actually all right when he's thousands of miles and an ocean away.

"They have a great fear," Eyasu said. "They don't believe until they are going to see me by their own eyes."

They'll see him this week. But they still may not believe.