DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A few years ago, Ethiopia's health minister noted that there were more Ethiopian doctors working in Chicago than in their own country. That country has long had a weak health care system, and now some Ethiopian doctors are heading back with big ambitions. They want to build a state-of-the-art hospital, a place where people can get advanced brain surgeries and cancer treatments - treatments that are not available now. But even if they get the hospital built, it might take years for Ethiopia to see the benefits. Amy Walters has the story.
AMY WALTERS, BYLINE: Ethiopians practicing medicine abroad - it's kind of a thing. I met Fassil Teffera at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He flew over here from the Bronx where he works as an internist.
FASSIL TEFFERA: I just left the country when they had the coup, and all my friends were killed. My brother was killed, and I just left with my shirt. I never planned to immigrate.
WALTERS: That 1989 coup attempt failed, but political tensions forced a lot of Ethiopians out of the country, including doctors. Then, it was the economy that pushed even more out. Ethiopian doctors live on one of the lowest medical salaries in the world. So there's only 5,000 doctors left. Ethiopia has 80 million people. It's not enough doctors.
TEFFERA: So I'm going to be the first one moving. So I'm going to be the Moses. So I'm going to bring all the Ethiopians back here.
WALTERS: That's what Teffera hopes, at least. He's joined with about 200 other Ethiopian doctors from the Diaspora to build the biggest, best medical center this part of Africa has ever seen. It'll include neurology, orthopedics, cardiology, even a five-star hotel for the families to stay during their medical treatment - a center of excellence. That's the official term. It's a kind of facility Emun Abdu, one of the doctors - a brain surgeon from Tucson, Arizona - is accustomed to.
EMUN ABDU: I deal with brain aneurysms through the interventional route where you go in through the groin and access the brain vessels. And you can do whatever you need. If it's a stroke, you can extract clots. That option is not there at all in this country.
WALTERS: So the only way you can get this procedure - a lot of procedures - is to leave. Hospitals in Thailand advertise in Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazines. This new medical center could save lives.
ABDU: My parents live here, and I am worried to death that if they had, like, a mini heart attack or a mini stroke, they would not have the appropriate care and would die.
WALTERS: But here's the thing - most Ethiopians make around $400 a year. They're not going to be able to afford this hospital. It's for an elite few in Ethiopia and around Africa to keep those patients and their money here. Most Ethiopians end up someplace like this.
It looks like the door just came off the hinges there.
This is a typical public hospital in the Northwest of Ethiopia. Natnesh Assrat is lying down with a tiny baby - 2.9 pounds - on her chest. She's careful to explain the water droplet on her left cheek is sweat, not tears.
ASSRAT: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She's having a kind of sweating.
WALTERS: When a baby's premature here, they keep it warm and close to food by resting it on the mother's chest. That's their version of an incubator. They did just get a new incubator, though.
BERKANU WEBSHET: Very recently.
WALTERS: Berkanu Webshet, one of the doctors here, explains the last incubator arrived three years ago. It broke one month later. There aren't enough beds, x-ray machines, thermometers, even hospitals. You can't rely on electricity or clean water. So building a state-of-the-art medical facility here isn't going to be easy. But the technology giant GE has pledged help and so has the government. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia's foreign minister and the former minister of health, was a guest of honor at the hospital groundbreaking.
TEDROS GHEBREYESUS: And we will help them in any way possible like what we have been doing. This project is part of the bigger strategy plan.
WALTERS: What they're all hoping is that if they get enough rich people coming to this new hospital, it'll give a boost to the Ethiopian health care system, overall. The doctors want to help train local doctors, and there'll be a foundation to help some Ethiopians who can't afford the services. But it's not clear if they'll raise the money needed to build the hospital or if the medical tourism plan will take off and then, if it will even help average Ethiopians. But Ghebreyesus is undeterred.
GHEBREYESUS: Ethiopia can be a very good hub for American tourism - you know, the whether - it's the best? I know you will tell your listeners that.
WALTERS: Well, the weather is pretty good, but they might need more than that. For NPR News, this is Amy Walters.
GREENE: And we should say Amy Walters traveled to Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.
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