Rogers Ssembatya came to Montana from Uganda in 2014 with pressure sores and a bone infection that could have led to his death.
Instead, months of treatment through St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings restored the paraplegic’s health. It allowed the now 18-year-old to lead a normal life, to smile again.
Ssembatya’s story kicked off the third annual Wound Care Conference sponsored by the Billings hospital at the Mansfield Health Education Center. Participants at the two-day conference watched a short video produced by MiMedx about Ssembatya and his long, difficult medical journey. St. Vincent donated all the costs of Ssembatya’s care, and MiMedx donated $34,000 in products toward his treatments. Both Ssembatya and Terry Fettig, his American guardian, were on hand for the start of the conference.
Watching the video Thursday, he said, it brought back a lot of the pain he experienced during those difficult years. He’s glad to be on this side of all the medical care he’s undergone. It has left him with a gratitude for all the people who have helped him on his way, including Fettig, the physician assistant from St. Vincent he met in Uganda, and the many physicians and other medical professionals. “I don’t know how to thank them,” he said. “Just be who I am, go to school and give back. That’s what it’s all about.”
Back and forth
Back in 2006, Ssembatya was discovered in a small village by Nadine Hart, a St. Vincent physician assistant, who was in Uganda on a mission trip. He had no clothes, was wrapped only in a blanket, unable to extend his contracted legs.
Ssembatya was severely malnourished. He was often the last one to be fed since no one thought he would live long. Hart did what she could for the boy. When she returned to the United States she told Fettig, then-president of AIDSpirit USA, about the youngster.
Fettig, a Billings contractor, traveled to Uganda in 2007 to help start a sponsorship program for children to go to school. While he was there, he met Ssembatya, made sure the boy had clothes and a new wheelchair. He and Hart helped him get admitted to a rehabilitation hospital, where he was diagnosed with TB of the spine. The pair worked long and hard and eventually got Ssembatya to St. Vincent in 2010. There, for the next 18 months, his condition was evaluated and treated, with all the costs covered. In 2011, Ssembayta underwent delicate surgery to remove part of his spine, which was then realigned and fused.
In 2012, he remained under medical care, needing doctor visits to check the hardware in his back and prevent infection. When Fettig returned to Uganda that summer, he brought Ssembatya with him so the youth could see his mother, who was terminally ill. When it was time to return, complications arose over the youth’s travel status and he wasn’t allowed to return to the U.S. Fettig placed the youth in safe care and returned to the U.S.
Fettig and Hart, working with an immigration attorney, eventually brought Ssembatya back to Montana in 2014 on a humanitarian visa.
By then, the youth, who relies on a wheelchair, had developed deep pressure sores and a bone infection. That’s where Dr. Timothy Dernbach came in.
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