May 25, 2016
By: Ellen Agler, CEO
I was delighted to travel with high school junior Timothy Stoleson for a recent visit to Ethiopia. Throughout our meetings with the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), participating in a school-based deworming program, and observing trichiasis surgeries, I was impressed with Timothy’s curiosity and eagerness to learn more about neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), as well as the people suffering with them. His thoughtful reflections, particularly about the moving experience we shared at a health facility in Merawi Ketema, meeting patients suffering from lymphedema due to lymphatic filariasis and podoconiosis, are beautifully captured in his recent blog post. Timothy’s personal journey, as well as his participation in July’s Kilimanjaro climb, exemplifies how families can get involved together – to care about and bring an end to – these diseases of neglect.
By: Timothy Stoleson
As a junior in high school living in Dubai, over the past few months I have been studying about NTDs and why they are so harmful. I am also an intern with the END Fund and am preparing for Summit to See the END– a climb up Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds and awareness for NTDs.
I first learned about the END Fund from my father, who works for Legatum, a founding investor in the END Fund and an important partner for the organization. Over time, I have become more passionate about its ability to change the lives of millions of people and make a serious impact in the world.
A few weeks ago I visited Ethiopia to see the effects of NTDs for myself. I also saw the work of the END Fund and its partners, which aims to help control and prevent these diseases. We visited government agencies, laboratories to see the diseases under microscopes, and went out into the field to see how the medicine is distributed.
This trip was a great learning experience, but it also had a big impact on me personally because while in Ethiopia, I discovered a feeling of great contradiction. For the first time, I wanted everyone on Earth to have the opportunity to experience what I just had, and yet, at the same time, I hoped the need for this experience would no longer be there. I had had the privilege of washing the feet of people suffering from elephantiasis.
As early as the first century, the act of washing another person’s feet was seen as one of the most humbling of experiences. While in history it was often seen as a dishonorable chore performed usually by servants or even slaves, for me, it was one of the most profoundly touching experiences of my life. The fact that even Christ was said to have washed the feet of the poorest of the poor spoke to my faith and my beliefs and made my experience even more profound.
When we went to the highlands of northern Ethiopia, we met with people from a community that suffers from a number of diseases that are treated by the END Fund, including elephantiasis. Elephantiasis is the severe swelling of the legs and feet and can be caused by several NTDs, including lymphatic filariasis and podoconiosis. While there is no cure for the condition, the government and other partner organizations help with morbidity management for this debilitating disease. We were there to wash the feet of people suffering from this disease to help reduce the swelling and prevent infection and were also distributing basins and soap so they could do the washing themselves later.
When it came time to start, I have to admit that I felt a bit hesitant, given the enlarged shapes of people’s feet, which often grow infections or even fungus. But I gathered up my courage, put on my gloves, and got on my knees to start to wash. Immediately I realized that washing their feet was actually an amazing experience. I connected with people not just as “sick people” who needed help, but simply as people. And this was very important because in their culture many of them have been kicked out of their homes and rejected by their villages, and even their churches. Some people believe that those who suffer from these diseases are cursed, so it meant a lot to them for another human to touch them and extend basic human kindness. Although I could not speak their language, I could feel their warmth and their tenacity.
I came back to Dubai a different person, as my perspective was transformed. It amazed me that people who were considered to be poor and suffer so much from these NTDs, were actually very happy. Even though I could not understand their words, the smiles that people had were priceless. They truly blew my mind.
Through this trip to Ethiopia with the END Fund I discovered three revelations. The first being that often times those who we see as unfortunate can be happier than we expect, sometimes even more than we are. The second was that little things like being present for others, smiling, and helping out can make someone’s day. And the final revelation is that washing feet not only benefitted the person whose feet were washed, but was even more beneficial for the “washer.” For me it was priceless.