(Photo | Courtesy of ReachAnother Foundation)
It was just a mere ten years ago that retired identical twin surgeons Drs. Marinus and Jan Koning realized that they might be able to make a real difference in the lives of some of the poorest children in the world. After several trips to Ethiopia and some astute observations and connections, the brothers founded the Reach Another Foundation (RAF) here in Bend, later followed by a chapter in Delft, Netherlands. Since then the organization has provided funding for over 5,000 brain and spinal surgeries for children born with neural tube defects.
Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus are neural tube defects [NTDs] which damage the spinal cord, brain and vital functions of the newly born. These NTDs cause severe, life-long, medical conditions or death in up to five percent of all Ethiopian babies with over 40,000 pregnancies affected every year. The twins found this situation further compounded by a lack of skilled pediatric neurosurgeons, insufficient medical technology and the constraints of deep-rooted cultural perceptions.
NTDs are preventable and far more rare in Western cultures where certain common foods like white flour are fortified with folic acid, a vitamin, and folic acid supplements are a significant part of prenatal care for expectant mothers.
RAF’s initial purpose of providing funding for surgeries, training, advocacy and medical equipment to a growing population of Ethiopian neurosurgeons and hospitals has expanded dramatically to include significant efforts to prevent NTDs, along with building out resources to support physical therapy and other critical elements of after care for patients. All of this is made possible by the special advocacy talents of the organization.
A key accomplishment of RAF’s advocacy efforts is encouraging the growth the neurosurgeon population. Ten years ago there was only one neurosurgeon in all of Ethiopia, today there is a continually growing population of 34 trained neurosurgeons in the country.
As a first step towards prevention, in 2018 RAF worked with our Bend Rotary Clubs to obtain grants from Rotary International to launch the Folic Acid Awareness Campaign in Ethiopia in partnership with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. This is an ongoing effort to educate the population about folic acid’s importance and where to find it in the average Ethiopian diet. Realizing the limitations of public education in a country of 100,000,000 people who most often live in rural farming communities, RAF developed additional Ethiopian and global scientific partnerships to explore the potential to fortify table salt with folic acid. The early results from these efforts are very encouraging.
Over the past ten years more than 150 members of our community have joined RAF on training missions to Ethiopia to provide additional medical, communication and strategic support to families and medical organizations dealing with NTDs. These trips helped the organization appreciate first hand the needs of affected children and families above and beyond surgery. As a result, RAF advocated for, and now supports five university hospitals’ development of Centers of Excellence in Pediatric Neurosurgery. These hospitals will soon be able to provide the care and support needed before, during and after children receive surgery. Along with this, RAF has delivered over $750,000 worth of medical equipment to these hospitals, including everything from ultrasound machines to sutures and medical gowns.
As happy as Dr. Marinus Koning is with the progress and growth of RAF, he is quick to point out how much more opportunity there is to bring hope, prevention and support to Ethiopian children and families. “It’s been amazing what we’ve been able to accomplish with the generous support of our Central Oregon community. We have made a difference for so many, and yet there are so many more that we can help. We are excited about the future.”
RAF will kick off its ten-year anniversary celebrations with its annual fundraiser, A Night for Ethiopia on Saturday, October 19 at the Unitarian Universalist Church.