Apr, 12

Ghana 2012: Olivine’s journey

(Reported by Cliff Goldkind and Della Heiman, volunteer members of the Ghana 2012 surgical mission organized by the Colorectal Center at Cincinnati Children’s)

Friday March 30: This morning, the team’s work was broadcast far and wide on Ghana TV’s morning show, which featured an interview with Dr. Marc Levitt describing this week’s mission.

The show, which airs daily at 6 am, is one of the highest rated shows in Ghana with viewership reaching even some of the country’s most remote villages.

Sharing information about Korle Bu’s improving colorectal treatment capabilities is very important, says Kojo Denanyoh, executive director of Primestar, an African documentary media company. In many Ghanaian villages, children born with colorectal abnormalities are euthanized because the babies are thought to be incurable. Therefore, the publicity surrounding this mission helps save lives before surgeons even pick up their scalpels.

However, on the final day of surgery for this year’s trip, the team rescued  three more lives the old-fashioned way. These last cases, successfully completed this morning, bring the total number of patients receiving operations to 34. Today also marked the culmination of an amazing story we have followed throughout the week; one that began long before the team’s arrival in Accra.

Restoring normalcy for Olivine

This morning, Olivine, a 3-year-old girl from Kenya, was taken into the operating theatre for surgery that will help allow her to attend school for the first time. Smiling nervously as they sat in the waiting room, Olivine’s parents, Randolph, a lawyer, and Olive, a teacher, recounted the family’s journey.

Olivine is the youngest of the couple’s five children, who range in age up to 16 years old. She was born with a severe colorectal condition that could have caused her to die shortly after birth.

But her parents fought to save her. After a frantic search, Randolph and Olive managed to fly one of Kenya’s two colorectal surgeons from Nairobi to Mombassa to operate on their daughter. That colostomy, given four days after she was born, saved Olivine’s life.

However, the surgeons in Kenya could not perform the more complex surgery needed to more fully repair her malformation and give Olivine a chance at a normal life.

Instead, she was left in a state requiring constant care, forcing her mother to give up her teaching job. As she grew, the only way Olivine would be allowed to attend school would be for her mother to go along to tend to Olivine’s colostomy. With that not being realistic, Olivine was stuck looking out the window as her peers played outside.

But her parents didn’t give up. After more than a year of internet research, Olivine’s family learned about pioneering colorectal surgeon Dr. Alberto Peña, his partner Dr. Marc Levitt and their work at Cincinnati Children’s.

When Olive received a return email from the doctors, “I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it. I called my husband on the phone immediately, screaming, ‘We got an email from Cincinnati, they wrote back, they wrote back!’  They even called us on the phone to take a medical history of our daughter, and brought a Swahili translator to make us feel more comfortable.”

Finding a solution

The process that led to today’s surgery lasted several months.

Dr. Levitt got Olivine onto the philanthropic waiting list at Cincinnati Children’s, which meant her surgery was complex enough to justify flying her to Cincinnati and that the hospital would absorb the costs of her care. However, the waiting list is long enough that Olivine likely would have to wait three to four years for treatment — years she would spend as an outcast, unable to attend school.

Pressing for a better solution, Dr. Levitt arranged for the medical center’s philanthropic fund to finance Olivine’s operation in Accra instead of Cincinnati. He told Olive and Randolph that if they could come to Ghana, he would take care of their daughter.

“I don’t know what he did or how he did it, but Dr. Levitt took care of everything,” Olive said.

‘I’m going to school!’

Olivine spent the days leading up to her surgery jumping around the house singing, “I’m going to school! I’m going to school!”  Her family even took Olivine to the store to buy crayons to color and draw so she could prepare for school, which begins in May.

After a few hours of waiting, team members rolled Olivine safely into the recovery room to the immense relief of her parents. The surgery moved Olivine’s colostomy to a more ideal location that will give her better odds of recovering full colorectal function.

“Thank God for Dr. Levitt and Dr. Peña, and thank God for all of you,” the parents said.

Olivine’s saga, however, will continue. The next step is expected to occur later this year at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where Drs. Alp Numanoglu and Richard Wood will perform surgery to complete the repairs initiated in Ghana.

Mission scope grows

Dr. Wood is part of a four member crew from South Africa that joined this year’s mission: Numanoglu, Wood, Dr. Chris Westgarth-Taylor and Dr. Rebecca Gray.

Dr. Numanoglu has been a friend of Dr. Levitt’s since 2006 when they met at medical conference in Cincinnati. Since then, Dr. Numanoglu has joined Dr. Levitt on three medical missions. He also hosted Dr. Levitt in South Africa earlier in March during a pediatric surgical conference held in Cape Town. This is Dr. Wood’s second mission with the team and the first for Drs. Gray and Westgarth-Taylor.  

Drs. Numanoglu and Wood said that the scope and efficiency of the team’s mission work has progressed substantially since the first visit to Ghana. In 2010, the team did 17 major operations and seven laparoscopic procedures in a week. This trip included 31 major operations and 3 scopes.

“This year everyone knew their role and knew who to turn to if they had trouble,” Wood said. “It sped everything up a lot.”

Improved equipment, some of which arrived just two weeks before the team, also helped. 

“The anesthesia machines were brand new,” Dr. Gray said. “They really allowed us to work well with the patients.”

Long-term relationships

But the deeper success of the trip will be the long-term links and connections the visit forged, Dr. Numanoglu said.

“We can’t operate on most of the children in need in just one week,” he said. “So helping give those capabilities to surgeons in Ghana is the most important thing.”


Tim Bonfield

About the Author Tim Bonfield

Tim Bonfield is an associate in Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Children's. He joined the medical center in 2009 after 17 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer as an award-winning health beat writer, assistant local news editor and Butler-Warren bureau chief. Tim is a proud Cincinnati native and the frazzled father of two teen daughters.


  1. Thank you for the exciting report on our toils and journey with our beloved daughter and for the assistance which we received from Cincinnati. Thank you and God bless you.

    Randolph Tindika - April 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm Reply
  2. I am a nurse in Cincinnati but originally from Ghana. My pediatrician told me about the mission in Ghana only yesterday 4/2. Wish I heard about it earlier. Thank u so much for the help u guys provided to my fellow Ghanaians moms and kids. It brought tears to my eyes reading about it. May God bless all of you.

    freda boakye - April 3, 2012 at 6:24 am Reply
  3. This mission surely has proven the proverb of ” Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”—Author unknown

    Tracy - April 4, 2012 at 10:45 am Reply

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