An Ethiopian family crisis which faith not science could answer

Estimated read time 5 min read

A few years ago I was dramatically and inescapably confronted with a human tragedy where my medical training failed miserably to find a family peace. This experience was one of many I experienced in Ethiopia that confirmed that science cannot replace God’s role in our life.

As I walked out of the operating room having completed a case, there was immediately pushed in front of me by a nurse, a stretcher holding a crying newborn with his head wrapped in roll bandage, accompanied by a distraught father keeping his distance from the child.

The young parents had been married for a year. Their families had met and had shemaglis (agreements between elders of the families) for a year before the ceremony in the mountains of Northern Ethiopia. The young mother to be was very poor and lived in remote area hours from any clinic so there was no pregnancy planning or prenatal care. She presented to the hospital in early labor. A few hours later Neurosurgery was called.

The little boy had a beautiful face, arms, and legs but had a large defect in the back of the head. A naked imperfectly formed brain was exposed without skull or skin to cover it. Despite this the child was opening his eyes, weakly crying, and moving his tiny fingers.

Nurse relatives had brought the child to the operating room emergently hoping there was something I could do. The mother was recovering from a C-section done for fetal distress and was I was told in emotional shock. The father now stood 3 feet away from the baby on the stretcher with a look of unbearable terror on his face.

This unfortunately was not the first time I had seen an anencephalic newborn. Many of them are actually stillborn. There was no heroic surgery I could do. The child would not feed and was doomed to die within a short time. The easiest thing to do sometimes for a neurosurgeon is to briefly say there is nothing we can do and walk away. Taking on the full emotional load here is a broadside that is tough to absorb.

However, I felt compelled by the look on the father’s face to remain but what could I do? Through an interpreter I explained the birth defect and prognosis. That with the next baby the mother should take folic acid daily three months before getting pregnant. Throughout this time the father kept his distance from the child looking at it like it was cursed. Frequently here they belief in buda which is that such babies are caused by curses invoked by some wrong doing.

I was watching the little hand of the baby moving as if it was searching for something. Something came over me, I like to think it was the Holy Spirit, and I reached out to take the father’s hand and pulled him close to the child. He was afraid and moderately resisted. Then I put the child’s hand into the father’s and hand gently causing him to grasp it.

The distraught Tigrayan father takes the hand of the crying child and it becomes a moment of faith for us all.

Tigrayans and other Ethiopian’s are among the most faithful people on the planet whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. This solemn moment of transition the family understood inherently as it happened.

The baby grew quiet and calm. The father’s look of horror turned to a sort of determination and love. He held that baby’s hand and then picked up the baby for a couple of hours until God called the child. Even though his son’s life was short the father had shared something irreplaceable and special in this tragedy. I learned the human experience is something we must not take for granted and valuable if only for a moment. That we thank God for every moment of Grace He gives us.

Some time later I ran into the couple on the hospital campus. They had a new normal child now but remember the love they felt for that infant boy who was with them for a short time which they cherished.

As a young man with aspirations to be a doctor like my late father I developed a conviction that all of life’s major challenges could be managed by the application of science and technology. Religion and faith often seemed to be old answers for hopeless situations experienced in ancient times which were no longer relevant in today’s modern society.

The matriarch of my father’s family, his mother, was a devout Roman Catholic. I spent many summers with her as a small child where she would frequently pray and take me to church. She always told me that it was important to keep Jesus close to us.

Growing up in post world war II America my generation witnessed dramatic improvements in longevity, transportation, communication, and also of course in medicine. I remembered looking at the moon while I listened to reports of the Apollo moon mission landings on a car radio while I was accompanying my dad to make night rounds at the psychiatric hospital where he was director. Even if there were problems like incurable diseases or mental illness I believed that science would eventually conquer them.

More then ever I have learned that as the Bible says, the knowledge of man is nothing compared to Gods. The challenges of human life have not changed since our creation. He meant for us to learn to be stewards of his creation and develop our minds which he gave us to use to follow his message not to leave it. .

(Note: I previously wrote this incident in 2020 in my medical blog but have added more spiritual reflection and images.)

Professor Tony Magana

Dr. Tony Magana is Professor Emeritus in Neurosurgery who spent many years doing international teaching and research including 10 years in Ethiopia. Over the past 15 years he concomitantly intensified his Christian faith through study and worship through the Episcopal Church. He grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Attended Texas A&M University, Harvard Medical School, and trained at the University of Miami. Additionally he took the University of South Education for Ministry as well as attending the Southeast Florida Episcopal Diocesan School for Christian Studies.
Professor Tony Magana, a seasoned neurosurgeon, has not only dedicated his life to medical practice but also embarked on a profound spiritual journey. Over the past 15 years, he has deepened his Christian faith through study and worship within the Episcopal Church. His experiences span international teaching, research, and a decade of service in Ethiopia
Dr. Tony Magana’s writings blend faith, compassion, and wisdom, inviting readers to explore the intersection of spirituality and the human experience. His journey serves as an inspiration for those seeking deeper connections with faith and humanity.

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