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UTSW outreach initiative sends neurology expertise and equipment to Ethiopia

Dr. Mehari Gebreyohanns and a group of doctors
While in Ethiopia, Dr. Mehari Gebreyohanns (second from left) is joined by (from left) Drs. Dessalegn Nigatu and Leweye Demeke, both Bahir Dar University Internal Medicine faculty members, and Dr. Patrick Griffith.

UT Southwestern’s Department of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics has launched a global neurology education and clinical skills outreach initiative that spans more than 8,000 miles.

Leading the effort is stroke specialist Dr. Mehari Gebreyohanns, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, who headed UT Southwestern’s stroke outreach and telestroke programs before he embarked on this new endeavor. He was drawn to stroke care by the challenges and rewards of caring for patients with a complex disease that is often intertwined with other chronic conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. Inspiration for the global outreach program came during a sponsored educational trip to Ethiopia, where he was born.

Dr. Gebreyohanns visited the city of Bahir Dar and Felege Hiwot Hospital in July 2016 for a series of classes, lectures, and neurological consultations. While helping at the facility – the referral hospital to 7 million Ethiopians – he felt transported back in time to the 1950s and 1960s.

“They had no imaging technology in the hospital such as CT or MRI, so we were making diagnoses by physical exams alone – listening, touching, examining,” Dr. Gebreyohanns said. “It was both challenging and exciting at the same time.”

Dr. Mehari Gebreyohanns watches an EEG
Dr. Mehari Gebreyohanns watches as general practitioner Dr. Seblewongel Asmare, a neurology residency candidate (foreground), and Fikir Addisu, a Felege Hiwot Hospital mental health professional specialist, take EEG readings from a patient.

Dr. Gebreyohanns believed better technology could be made available to clinicians and their patients if someone made the effort.

Upon returning to the UT Southwestern campus, Dr. Gebreyohanns launched the Bahir Dar Out-Reach for Neurology Education (BORNE) initiative. Within months, he had secured two electroencephalography (EEG) machines with the promise of on-site technical support from EEG technician Bereket Habte, a fellow native Ethiopian who lives in Colorado.

He also secured the services of Dr. Patrick Griffith, a longtime mentor of Dr. Gebreyohanns since his time as a first-year medical student. Dr. Griffith is a retired neurologist from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and Professor of Neurology at UT Southwestern.

“I was lucky and persistent in getting the machines,” said Dr. Gebreyohanns, who returned from another trip to Africa in September, in part made possible with support from Dallas’ Ethiopian community. “On the other hand, all it took was one phone call to Dr. Griffith. Ninety minutes later, he had agreed to be involved and to go to Ethiopia from July to mid-October and serve as a volunteer faculty member.”

Now that the machines are operational, Felege Hiwot Hospital clinicians can share EEG readings and consult with UT Southwestern personnel on difficult cases.

The EEG machines that Mr. Habte donated, set up, and trained hospital staff on – five nurses and two doctors – offer an electrophysiological monitoring method to record electrical activity of the brain.

“Now that we have everything in place, and with the help of colleagues here and in Ethiopia, we can access digital studies and offer tele-EEG services,” Dr. Gebreyohanns said. “Ultimately, I hope that this could be developed into a more robust global neurology program. It would be a great opportunity for residents to have an elective rotation in global neurology to experience the challenges of health care in a low-resource environment. This puts our Department at the forefront of the effort to ease the burden of neurological diseases in less-developed parts of the world.”

“UT Southwestern Neurology faculty and residents are proud to be part of this Departmental initiative, which will provide a new level of care for the patients served,” said Dr. Steven Vernino, Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics and a supporter of the new program.

Dr. Vernino holds the Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation Distinguished Chair in Neuromuscular Disease Research.