Ethiopian woman makes her recovery one step at a time

June 01, 2012
Life hasn’t been easy for Yodit Derese [yo-DEET da-RAYsay]. Four surgeries to correct her clubfoot as a young child in Ethiopia were not successful. When both her parents died, the teenager took over the care of her younger sister, Naomi, but was compelled to place her in the care of a local orphanage. Yodit found work there in order to stay in contact with her.

In 2005, Naomi was adopted by Eric and Hilary Shreves of Portland, along with two other Ethiopian children. At 19, Yodit was too old to adopt, but the Shreves always considered her a member of the family. Word of Yodit’s case eventually reached Alex Jackson, Providence St. Vincent Medical Center chief operating officer, who brought her case to Shandy’s attention. Alex knew that in 2008, she coordinated charity care for a man from Honduras who needed knee replacements.Without corrective surgery, Yodit probably would not be able to support herself. She also risked infection that could take her foot, or even her life.

“We were going to save her life,” Shandy says. “We didn’t have an option.” Shandy recruited a team of doctors who donated their services, and PSVMC agreed to write off the hospital bill. “Everyone wanted to be part of something positive – to pay it forward.” But getting the patient to Portland proved to be a long and frustrating journey.

For months, Shandy worked with Hilary Shreves to navigate the complex visa application process. Federal officials tried to help, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the applications twice ended in denials.

Then, early 2010, Sen. Ron Wyden told Shandy about humanitarian parole, administered by the Department of Homeland Security. It allows temporary entry to the U.S. for compelling emergencies. Applicants have only one opportunity, and there are no appeals. Not wanting to risk another denial, Shandy and Hilary hired an immigration attorney. Yodit’s story appeared in local newspapers and readers generously donated funds in support. Within six months, humanitarian parole was granted. Yodit arrived in Portland last June, with 25 people greeting her when she got off the plane. Her medical team, headed by Shandy’s husband, Hans Moller, M.D. of the Orthopedic and Fracture Clinic, prepared her for the July 28 surgery.

After many weeks of rehab, Yodit now can bear full weight on her foot. She still needs a final surgery to release tendons in her foot. “I think we helped Yodit along a path to a life that should be dramatically better,” says Shandy. “I have three pictures of her on my bulletin board, because she inspires me. You know she’s going to give back – we’re just investing.”

UPDATE JUNE 2012:
Full recovery after her surgery took about a year, and during that time the Shreves family applied for and received “indefinite asylum” for Yodit, granted to people who can prove they would be persecuted in their native country.

Yodit has been granted permanent asylum in the U.S. and can now continue her care and rehabilitation at Providence St. Vincent.
“I’m just thankful,” Yodit says. “God is good, and He knows my life.”

More stories and photos
See photos and read more of Yodit's story on Oregonlive.com: Yodit Derese stories