Last July, orthopedic surgeon Eric Gokcen ’84 performed a groundbreaking eight-hour surgery. His 17-year-old Ethiopian patient, Workitu Debebe, had a “parasitic twin” — a condition where a person has extra limbs, but no attached head or viable body.
“It happens in about 1 in 10 million live births, making it exceedingly rare,” said Gokcen, who oversees the medical program at CURE International’s hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A nonprofit organization, CURE provides medical treatment for adults and children in developing countries with limited access to health care.
Gokcen performs six to eight surgeries a day, fixing deformities such as clubfeet, bowed legs, and cleft palates.
“The kids who have deformities, particularly in the developing world, [live in] what is called a ‘shame culture,’” he explained. “They feel shameful not only because [they are abused] in different ways, but also because they bring shame on their own family.”
After their surgeries, his patients’ lives are forever changed — enabling them to be socially accepted by their peers.
Early in his career, Gokcen made short-term medical trips to various international locations. He met an American general surgeon who was practicing in Russia, and the duo began servicing remote areas in Russia and the Arctic. Because both of those locations lacked the technology that Gokcen needed for his intended focus on orthopedic surgery, he began looking into opportunities in remote locations that have access to hospitals.
The chance presented itself when a friend told Gokcen about CURE.
After spending a few years learning about CURE and speaking to its medical personnel, Gokcen signed a two-year contract and moved his family moved to Africa, where he could practice at a CURE hospital in Kenya. Within the first year of treating and improving the lives of his Kenyan patients, Gokcen realized, “This is what I was made to do.”
Gokcen and his family later moved to Ethiopia, where he became the medical director of the Addis Ababa hospital in 2008. Although he does not know many words in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, his staff of bilingual nurses translates for him when he discusses surgical procedures with his patients.
The story of 17-year-old Workitu, and how Gokcen and CURE made the surgery possible, was filmed by the Discovery Channel this past summer and will appear on the TLC channel in the spring.
As a result of the surgery, and by recommendation of the president and prime minister of Ethiopia, Gokcen was awarded a Certificate of Honor from the Ethiopian Parliament in July. Subsequently, “the president of Ethiopia invited me to the palace and asked me to see him as a patient,” said Gokcen.
Regardless of the status or age of Gokcen’s patients, he gets the most gratification out of helping transform a person’s life.
“The most rewarding [aspect of my job] is when a kid who has been abused and ashamed changes; when they come give me a big hug, I see such a dramatic change in their countenance,” he said. “I never get tired of that.”