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L.A. doctors help fix boy w/ back deformity

August 27, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Nine-year-old Berhannu from Ethiopia had everything stacked against him. He lost both his parents to AIDS and he had a debilitating back deformity. A local charity discovered Berhannu and brought him to Los Angeles.In less than a year, so much has changed for 9-year-old Berhannu from Ethiopia. He was a homeless, orphan with an extremely severe case of scoliosis. The 114 degree curvature made it hard for him to breathe.

"His spine was really curved to the side and hunched over," said Dr. David Skaggs of Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "If you think of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, that's kind of what Berhannu looked like when I met him."

"He was seen as a bad omen, cursed of God and many said would be left to die," said James Nichol, Berhannu's stepfather.

In his small village, Berhannu was destined to be a beggar. His fortune changed when the Mending Kids organization identified his medical need and brought him to Children's Hospital Los Angeles. That's how he met his future father, James Nichol.

"And I think in life, you just come across situations where it's time to do the right thing," said Nichol.

But the first thing: fix Berhannu's back. The conventional way to treat would be put screws in the patients head and then slowly stretch the patient by pulling him upwards. It's a tedious process that would take several weeks or months.

"At Children's Los Angeles we have pioneered a technique where we put metal instruments, screws and hooks and stretch out with more force, longer directly on the spine itself," said Dr. Skaggs.

Just on the operating table itself, Berhannu grew four inches taller. In a second surgery, Dr. Skaggs deposited crushed up cadaver bones in each vertebrae to reinforce the spine.

"In construction they put in steel rebar with concrete," said Dr. Skaggs. "That's basically the same thing that we did with Berhannu."

X-rays now show that Berhannu's spine is perfectly straight. And doctors expect it will stay that way. Rebuilding his spine wasn't the only obstacle Berhannu faced he needed to rebuild his life.

"How can we send him back when he doesn't have a mom or dad? We can't," said Nichol.

That's where Pastor Nichol has taken over. He and his wife are in the process of adopting him and they plan on living a full life together.

"He is well aware that he is in paradise and that he will be staying with us permanently," said Nichol.

Berhannu also has a sister back in Ethiopia whom the Nichols also hope to adopt.


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