Why does a surgeon work for free?

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Dr. Tertius Venter, Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon, examining Yeabsira, a patient at the CURE Children’s Hospital of Ethiopia during a partnership between Mercy Ships and CURE International.

Yeabsira’s parents have always thought of him as their gift from God. Even if this gift came with a measure of grief.

He was their first child, and he was born with Apert syndrome, which can impact the shape of the head and hands. For Yeabsira, this meant that his fingers on both hands were fused together.

“Some people tell us he is like this because of our sins and others say it is because I didn’t take care of him during pregnancy,” said Yeabsira’s mother, Tigist. “This is not true. All of these thoughts break my heart.”

Tigist and her family live in Ethiopia. As a mother, her dream for 6-year-old Yeabsira is for him to go to school. But without surgery on his hands, he can’t even hold a pencil.

Tigist said other hospitals were not listening to her family’s needs. Then she found CURE.

Hospitals are run by CURE International in several African countries, including Ethiopia. In early 2021, Mercy Ships began supporting CURE by helping to staff hospitals with highly qualified volunteers. Through local partnerships like these, Mercy Ships continues to deliver safe and accessible surgery to those who need it most.

During the pandemic, long-term Mercy Ships volunteer plastic surgeon Dr Tertius Venter, from South Africa, has been rotating through these hospitals, finding other ways to serve until the organization’s hospital ships can return to service in Africa.

“Just to see the need of the patients in the different hospitals as well as here, the long waiting lists,” he said, “there’s a lot of work that can be done.”

Dr. Tertius Venter, Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon, volunteering at the CURE Children’s Hospital of Ethiopia during a partnership between Mercy Ships and CURE International.

Dr Tertius went to work at a CURE hospital in Niger at the beginning of 2021, then to Malawi, and onward to Ethiopia. That’s where he met Yeabsira and his family.

“The one thing always with children with abnormal hands, they are ashamed of their hands and they often hide it away from other people, especially other children, because they get mocked,” Dr Tertius said. “But apart from that, he’s had very limited function in his hands.”

Dr Tertius operated to separate Yeabsira’s fingers, and said the child will need more work done on the bones and tendons once he heals from the first procedure. Before that happens, though, Yeabsira should be able to make one of his mother’s dreams come true: holding a pencil.

“At least now with the fingers separated, he will find that much easier,” he said. “But also just general functions to put on his own clothes and look after himself. That will make a big difference for him to be much more independent.”

Yeabsira’s name means “the work of God.” And as a full-time volunteer serving in sub-Saharan Africa, that’s exactly the work that Dr Tertius gave up everything to pursue.

“When he called me to do this, he really gave me word that he would provide for me,” Dr Tertius said.

He was in private practice at that time, performing plastic surgeries and living what he called the “American dream.” A house on the river, a boat, three cars, and a vacation home.

Dr. Tertius Venter, Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon, examining Yeabsira

“I just had a life-changing experience with God,” he said. “And felt suddenly that those things had no meaning. Just got rid of everything. Closed my practice and became a full-time volunteer.”

Now working in hospitals like this one in Ethiopia, helping Yeabsira’s family grasp a new future, brings meaning to Dr. Tertius’ life.

“It’s the love of Christ that compels me to do it, because this is where I feel closest to him,” he said.

Yeabsira’s mother said she would have kept trying to find a way to help her son even if she hadn’t found CURE International and Dr. Tertius. But she’s grateful that she put her son in God’s hands, and that God used these volunteers to heal him.

“I just want my son to live the best life that he can,” she said. “I want him to go to school, make something of himself, and be able to do what normal people can.”

maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships