Fissiha Girmay was a healthy young father of four and field coordinator for charity: water projects. He unexpectedly lost his sight, speech and hearing nine months ago while working in southern Ethiopia.
We’re seeking help. Please pass his story onto doctors, neurologists or anyone who knows specialists in Ethiopia who could diagnose and possibly treat him.
June 2011. Tigray, Ethiopia.
After six days in the field shooting footage for our upcoming September Campaign, we’re due for a little break. We sit to stretch our legs and recap the week with staff from our partner organization, Relief Society of Tigray (REST), at a local juice joint across the street from their six-story office building.
“You heard about Fissiha, did you?” asks REST’s Water Program Director, Getachew.
I’m digging into my avocado + mango concoction, sitting next to my husband and charity: water’s CEO, Scott. We both render blank expressions. “No, who’s that?” I casually ask.
Fissiha was a loyal employee of REST and a father of four, Getachew tells us. He was a field coordinator for water projects and passionate about serving the poor in the most remote, rural areas. Since charity: water’s work here is almost entirely in the countryside, Fissiha naturally spent most of his time coordinating the construction of charity: water projects.
“He was always coming in my office saying that we must expand, we must go to the south, the people in the south need water so badly!” Getachew told us. Nine months ago, Fissiha got his wish. REST sent him to Southern Ethiopia with eight other water experts to train another local organization on constructing hand-dug wells.
That’s where everything changed for him.
“You know, why don’t we go visit him?” Getachew says, interrupting his own story. “He remembers charity: water and asks me from time to time, ‘Oh! How is Scott? How is the work going?’”
We pay our bill, jump in the car and in minutes, we’re walking through Fissiha’s front door. His daughter, who looks about 15 years old, doesn’t say a word but grabs two barking dogs and quickly ties them up.
Then, she runs inside. Her father walks out, holding her elbow and asking in a whisper where he should step. Getachew explains in Tigrinya (the local language) that Scott and Vik from charity: water have come to visit him. Fissiha smiles and feels around for our hands. I place mine in his and say hello.
I can’t help but notice his eyes are a deep red color and severely swollen. A thick film has formed over them that I can’t imagine going away anytime soon. We sit down in the small living room and I ask if he could please explain exactly what happened to him. I take out my notepad, ready to document everything, hoping that we’ll have access to resources in the U.S. that can help him.
This is Fissiha’s story:
While working in a malaria-prone southern region of Ethiopia, Fissiha noticed some unusual pain in his nose. Then, it started to swell.
His co-workers rushed him to an ill-equipped, local clinic. The nurse there had no way to test for malaria, but gave him two injections anyway: Fansidar, an anti-malarial agent, and Quinine, another anti-malarial that has been used since as early as the 1940s.
Fissiha left the clinic but his condition didn’t improve. Within 24 hours, he was shivering and experiencing joint pain.
He tried another local clinic where, without any tests, he received Fansidar again, along with other medications he can’t remember. Clinicians told him they thought he either had cerebral malaria (a type that infects the brain) or yellow fever, but they had no way of knowing for sure.
Within six hours, Fissiha was vomiting severely, and his face began to swell.
He made it to a third clinic, a bigger one where doctors could finally run many tests, but they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They suggested he was having an allergic reaction.
All along, Fissiha’s face continued to swell. He lost the ability to speak, hear or see: his eyes became swollen shut. Soon, he could only communicate by writing on a piece of paper. The swelling didn’t start to subside until about a month later.
By the time we met Fissiha, his hearing and speech had gradually returned, though he slurs his words slightly. He does not have his sight back. As we sit with him, he points to the crown of his head, saying that when he touches it, his face begins to tingle. The sensation ceases immediately when he stops touching the top of his head.
He experiences pain on the right, back side of his head and says his forehead hurts as well. He says the pain has been worse in the last three months (that’s six months after the initial problem).
He pointed out to us that he has no memory loss and retains his sense of smell. He also said that at different times he’s been able to see shadows or changes in light that appear like flashes in his dark world.
He said they give him hope.
This is the most detail we could gather in a short period of time from Fissiha. He has been to several specialists and still can’t get a diagnosis or effective treatment for his condition.