Known around the world as ‘Lord of the Ring’, for inventing laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding to treat morbid obesity seventy four-year-old professor and surgeon Mitiku Belachew has lived a life that inspires to rise above their circumstances. Born into a family of 9 in a rural area where there were no schools, he tended to cows and goats from the time he was a small child. Then, when he turned 12 he heard about a school far away. He went there and made the most of the opportunity, graduating just 7 years later. This initiative and drive became a trademark of his life as he learned French to study at a Belgium university when there was not a medical school here and invented a way to save the lives of those who were grossly overweight. Whenever there was an obstacle he overcame it. Now he has brought tools and experience with him to Ethiopia where he is working to train the next generation and inspire others to say no to limitations and use their talents to enrich the lives of others. He spoke to Capital to share his inspiring story. Excerpts;
Capital: What was it like for you growing up? Tell us about your childhood in general and what influenced you.
Professor Mitiku: I was born in Wenchi western Shewa. There were not any schools where I
grew up so I became a herder and worked on my family farm till I was 12 years old. At that time I heard there was a school far from my home so I decided to move away from Wenchi and go to school in Addis Ababa. I was motivated to study hard because I really understood the value of education. During these years I was double and triple promoted through the class levels, until just seven years later at the age of 19 I was able to start college. I wanted to go to medical school but there wasn’t one here at the time so I joined the Addis Ababa Institute of Science and Technology. I went there for a year but then I had the opportunity to study abroad after passing an exam through the Ministry of Education. I planned on attending the UK or US but at the same time the Belgium government gave me the opportunity to go to school there. People said the language barrier would make it difficult but I decided to go there and learn French. Finally I became a surgeon and professor specializing in laparoscopic surgery.
Capital: Since then you have come back home and I believe done some works with the hospitals here? What are you doing these days?
Professor Mitiku: I have now retired from doing surgical operations. Up to last year, I worked at different hospitals here: Tikur Anebesa, Betel, and St. Yared. Now, however, I am sharing my knowledge and experience with the next generation.
Capital: Did you teach after you retired?
Professor Mitiku: I have taught in many places including surgical workshops in Tikur Anbesa on laparoscopic surgery for local and international students. Since I travel a lot my colleagues and I organized many surgical campaigns and missions with 10 to 15 people regularly to conduct surgery and give trainings all over Ethiopia. At Dire Dawa University and Mekele University for 3 years, we gave trainings and encouraged students to work hard.
Capital: You are involved in many benevolent works. Tell us about the school you built in Wenchi.
Professor Mitiku: That’s right; I have contributed many things there because it was my childhood home. When I was a child I dreamed of building a school there so everyone could get the opportunity I had. I got together with like-minded people and established a charitable organization to build a school around the Crater Lake, in Wenchi. Today, over 700 students are studying there. Many have successfully completed their studies and are excelling in fields ranging from medicine to engineering and law. We also helped train youth that did not excel academically in other businesses, like weaving. It makes me feel proud and happy to see youth succeeding. In the same area we developed a small clinic with medical equipment and ambulances.
Capital: You have led an unusual life, turning from a shepherd to a world renowned Laparoscopic surgeon. Tell us about your book: “Le Berger Devenu Chirurgien” which means ‘The shepherd turned surgeon’.
Professor Mitiku: It is an autobiography. I wrote it two and a half years ago. It mainly focuses on how I went from being a herder in very small rural city to a surgical doctor travelling all over the world. It’s written in French. It’s a popular book with French speaking people. It is now being translated into English and Amharic. Hopefully, it will be done within the next six months. I hope it will reach more people and inspire and motivate them.
Capital: They call you the ‘Lord of The Ring’, tell us about that.
Professor Mitiku: I developed the Laparoscopic Adjustable Gastric Banding (LAGB) technique for the treatment of morbid obesity, 25 years ago. As a result I travelled around the world including Australia, Europe, Morocco, Benin, Senegal, Togo, and Congo for medical conferences and to teach and perform surgery.
While I was working over two decades ago, at the Civil Hospital of Bavaria, in Liege Belgium, there was a nurse suffering from morbid obesity that I helped lose weight. At the time surgical solution for the treatment of morbid obesity was not tried on human beings yet. There could be complications, but she desperately wanted the surgery, which I did after studying day and night and covering all aspect I could to prepare for the surgery. Since then, word of mouth racing I guess, I became a specialist in obesity surgery.
Capital: What are your plans for the future?
Professor Mitiku: I’ve had some age related health issues so I’m focusing on developing the skills of youth. I follow up on projects and educate people. I conduct medical conferences, write, train others and publish medical articles. I was there in Wenchi three days before; there was a big ceremony to celebrate the success of these projects and the start of new projects. We are currently building a big bookstore near the school. We are holding fund raising events for that. So yes basically I’m continuously following up these projects and encouraging others to start new ones.