Patient's cancer cured in Campbellsville

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Man comes from Ethiopia, has his cancer treated for free

By Calen McKinney


Nearly 8,000 miles from Campbellsville, Alem Bazezew Legesse is at his home in Ethiopia, with his family and a new lease on life.

Legesse was diagnosed with cancer last year. At first, he thought he might not be treated and, therefore, wouldn't survive. But then he came to Campbellsville.

Several months later, Legesse's cancer has been treated - for free - and he shows no signs of active cancer in his body. And he says he is grateful for being given a chance at a new life.

Legesse, 60, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering and dean of the faculty of engineering and computational sciences at Unity University.

Married with two children, Legesse's illness began as congestion with breathing difficulty. He was treated with antibiotics and nasal decongestants.

A doctor who, by chance, was visiting Ethiopia, was asked to do a biopsy for him to study the symptoms further. The results revealed nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

Legesse then had to decide if he would be treated. Doctors suggested he have radiation treatments.

A friend of his contacted Dr. Zewdu Lissanu, medical oncologist at Taylor Regional Hospital, and asked him to review Legesse's case. The friend, a psychiatrist at a hospital in Ethiopia, was a classmate of Lissanu's.

"[My friend] had asked Dr. Lissanu if he would somehow help me in getting the treatment I needed at the hospital where he practices," Legesse said.

The mutual friend called Lissanu one day and asked for a favor. At first, Lissanu said, he didn't believe he could help Legesse.

"Then I went to bed and I couldn't fall asleep," he said.

After thinking about Legesse's case and the treatment he needed, Lissanu contacted Jane Wheatley, TRH's CEO, and asked if the hospital could become involved with Legesse's care.

After she agreed, Lissanu said, many other departments and doctors were contacted. They all agreed to pitch in and treat Legesse for free.

"Everybody was great," he said. "Everybody was wanting to help. Once everybody was on board, I have to talk to my wife."

And that's because, he said, Legesse would have nowhere to stay during treatment and would likely end up staying at the Lissanu home. His wife agreed.

Lissanu said treating Legesse's cancer with only radiation, which is likely what would have been done in Ethiopia, would have been below the standard of care, and he couldn't let that happen.

Legesse had seven weeks of radiation and six chemotherapy treatments, a pain pump, PET scans and much more. His transportation was provided for free and he stayed with Lissanu and others.

After Legesse's care was coordinated, he arrived in the United States for initial PET and CT scans in December. He was treated with daily chemotherapy doses through February.

He had his last treatment in May and traveled back home last month. A scan done on May 9 showed Legesse was officially in remission. Lissanu said Legesse's treatment went very well.

"Everything went by the book," he said.

Since treating Legesse, Lissanu said, the two have become very close.

"It was a privilege to be in this situation," he said.

And it was also a privilege to send Legesse back home with life ahead of him.

"The only difference was he lost some weight," Lissanu said. "But he went without a tumor back home."

Lissanu said Legesse was very gracious for the care he received.

"He cried a couple of times," Lissanu said. "He was really very touched by the support he received. I never knew him, but now I'll know him forever."

Legesse said those who treated him at TRH were highly professional and caring.

"The follow-up I had, the adaptability of the treatment to my personal conditions was superb," he said. "During the treatment, Dr. Lissanu was not simply following the protocol, but he had to relate it to my personal health status with good care and adaptation to my conditions. This is what makes the treatment more effective and gives confidence to the patient in the whole process."

Legesse said had he not come to Campbellsville, he likely wouldn't have gotten treatment. If he had sought treatment, he would have had to go to India.

"In Ethiopia it [is] practically impossible to get the type radiation therapy I received at TRH," he said.

While Legesse could have been treated in India, he would not have received the quality treatment he had in Campbellsville.

"The quality of treatment I received at TRH is beyond my expectation with all the care I received from the staff, availability of medication for any eventuality during the treatment."

Legesse said he is cancer free, but still has some side effects from treatment. But knowing that he doesn't have cancer any more, he said, feels great.

"I feel relieved and blessed to have received my treatment at TRH under the care of Dr. Lissanu and his caring staff as well as under the care of the radiation oncologists and their staff," he said. "I thank the Lord who made it possible for me to come to TRH."

Had his treatment not been free, Lissanu said, Legesse wouldn't have been able to afford it. And for that, Legesse said, he is especially grateful.

"After I finished my treatment, I asked about what the cost of the treatment could be. And the approximate figure I heard was staggering, and it was simply well beyond my ability to cover.

"I understand the doctors and their staff did my treatment for free. I am indebted to their graciousness. I have no capacity to cover the treatment cost, which goes well above $100,000."

Lissanu said he insists that he treat patients regardless of whether they can pay. He said TRH allows him to do that.

"We do this all the time," he said. "It is more gratifying to help those who can not be helped than somebody who comes to you with free insurance," he said.

"Money will never give you that type of joy," he said. "I've never refused to see a patient because of payment."

He said he was once told he had done something wrong when ordering that a patient receive chemotheraphy. He should have dismissed the patient, he said he was told, because she didn't have insurance.

"I said, 'These are the people who need our service,'" he said. "I don't think a civil nation should have to do that."

Lissanu left that hospital shortly after that incident and moved to Texas. He then came to Campbellsville.

"This is the best place for me ever that I have been practicing. Mr. Legesse is just one of those patients for me," he said. "It became more personal because I had to take him home."

While being treated at TRH, Legesse said, he never felt treated as simply one of many patients.

" ... Which to my understanding is the case in big hospitals," he said. "To the staff of the center, I was a human being who needed affection, compassion and care. And that is what they provided me with beyond the professional help they gave me."

The hospital might be small, Lissanu said.

"But I can tell you we provide good care," he said. "We do a good service. And our patients are not a number. It's a special place."

Wheatley said she was glad to see Legesse get the help he needed.

"It was definitely a group effort," Wheatley said. "Everyone involved was focused on Mr. Legesse's care and we were honored to take care of him."

Now back at home, Legesse said he feels happy and grateful for what he and his family have been given.

"I understand that the Lord I worship has some plan[s] for my life and I am ready to accomplish his will in my life," he said.

Legesse said he never imagined he would come to the United States for treatment.

"But God who controls every process in the life of his children has made it possible for me to come to the U.S. and receive such quality treatment and care which is not available anywhere else," he said.

Legesse said he believes God has a plan for him, and that plan included his experience at TRH.

"I am a believer who knows that my life is in God's hand who has a plan for me on my journey here on earth. So my future is bright and I see myself to have a fulfillment in my life," he said.