A life-changing mission of mercy

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

Cara Levitz saw the wild Africa she had dreamed of since her childhood, lying awake in a tent listening to roaring lions and trumpeting elephants, driving away from a charging elephant and canoeing away from submerged hippopotamuses.

But she also saw another side - malnourished children deformed by preventable health problems, people without clean water and poor patients in hospital emergency room beds hoping a kind stranger would come along and pay for their treatment.

The continent had captured her imagination since she grew up watching National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, so when her company donated supplies to a charity that performs orthopedic surgeries on poor people in West Africa, she jumped at the chance to deliver the supplies personally.

Levitz, of Orange Springs, manages inventory at Exactech, a Gainesville company that makes bone and joint restoration products.

She said the company donated about $700,000 worth of supplies for its customer, Dr. Kyle Swanson of Minnesota, and other doctors to perform 15 free knee and hip replacements for poor West Africans during a week in November.

FOCOS - the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine - found the patients in communities throughout West Africa and paid for their travel and treatment.

The U.S. doctors taught a Ghana physician how to perform the procedures. Exactech plans to host the Ghana physician in Gainesville for further training, according to President David Petty.

Levitz was in charge of pulling together the inventory and volunteered to follow it to Africa and to assist in the surgeries, along with Sara Campbell, the company's independent sales representative for Swanson.

Exactech offered to pay Levitz's way, but she declined, saying it was something she wanted to do on her own.

She said the days were very long, starting with breakfast before 5 a.m. in a gated compound surrounded by barbed wire and a security guard, followed by an hour ride through heavy traffic to the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana.

After a full day of moving equipment and helping with the supplies for long surgeries, Levitz and the medical team returned to their compound and went over the next day's surgeries until late at night.

Levitz also made a point of visiting children in the hospital who were awaiting surgery while away from home and on their own.

She shared her food with a skinny 15-year-old boy named David from Ethiopia who was waiting to undergo surgery to correct a crooked spine that left him stooped over with a large hump on his back.

She found out the boy was embarrassed about not being able to write his name, so she stenciled his name in dots for him to trace until he could write it on his own.

David showed his gratitude by presenting her with the only thing he owned besides the clothes on his back: the in-flight magazine and a plastic bag from his flight on Ethiopian Airlines.

She fought back tears while showing off the bag and the place where she had David sign his name.

"It's something I'll treasure forever," she said, "especially since he gave me the only thing he had."

Levitz left before David underwent spine surgery, but heard he is doing well.

She described her trip as life-changing. Asked what she'll remember most, she said, "How lucky I am for everything I have. I really try not to complain at all."

Seeing how the people of West Africa live has given her little tolerance for complaints at work, she said.

"I can't understand why anywhere people don't have food," she said. "We didn't go anywhere you could drink the water."

After a week of surgeries, Levitz flew to Johannesburg, where she and five other people backpacked and camped in the wilds of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, traveling by van with a couple of hired Bushmen as guides.

Their driver hardly flinched when an elephant charged their vehicle in Kruger National Park in South Africa. But the Bushmen were very nervous about hippos. Levitz said the Bushmen banged on the sides of canoes to get the hippos to emerge from the water and then steered wide of them.

"That's what they're scared of. There're so many attacks," Levitz said.

Petty said the company previously donated supplies to a surgeon doing work for the poor in India and recently donated hip prostheses to a charity in Haiti accompanied by employee Raymond Cloutier.

"We're a commercial entity and we have shareholders and an obligation to earn profits, but we like to think of ourselves as good citizens, not only of the community but of the world," Petty said. "It's something that we're proud to have been a part of."

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