Roger Ssembatya already has the best Christmas present he could have asked for.
Two months after undergoing delicate spine surgery at St. Vincent Healthcare, he is back in school, hanging out with friends, enjoying life.
The 16-year-old native of Uganda is sitting up straighter, breathing easier and eating more than before his operation, performed by a renowned orthopedic surgeon who specializes in correcting spinal deformities. The quality of Roger’s life, and likely his lifespan, are much improved after the Oct. 21 surgery.
The eighth-grader at Riverside Middle School is a little reluctant to talk on the day of his interview. Truth be told, he’d rather be back in his class, with the other students, learning something new.
But he pushes his wheelchair in the school library, holding still for photos and answering most of the questions put to him. Asked how he’s feeling, he says, “Good, good.”
Terry Fettig, his guardian and the man who brought him to Billings from Africa nearly two years ago to get him necessary medical treatment, said Roger was off pain medication three weeks after the operation.
Less than five weeks after, he was back in school, Fettig said.
“He went to school a half day and then went back full-time after that,” Fettig said.
On Dec. 4, Nadine Hart, who met Roger in Uganda, threw an open house for his 16th birthday.
“He wanted to have an open house because some people weren’t able to see him in the hospital,” Hart said. “And he wanted to say thank you to everyone because he was grateful” for their support.
Roger was diagnosed in 2008 at a rehabilitation hospital in Uganda with tuberculosis of the spine. After he received all the treatment he could in Africa, Hart got permission to bring him to St. Vincent Healthcare for diagnosis and treatment, and Fettig raised the money for that to happen.
Hart, a physician assistant at St. Vincent, makes annual trips to Africa to offer medical care and training. Fettig, who is chairman of AIDSpirit in Billings, also travels to Africa on mercy trips.
When Roger came to Billings in February 2010, Fettig took on the role as his guardian.
Over the next 18 months, a number of physicians evaluated and treated Roger. Physical therapists helped relieve Roger’s contractures — an abnormal shortening or shrinking of muscles and tendon — to make it easier for him to sit in his wheelchair.
But because he suffered from post-tubercular kyphosis, a spinal deformity in which Roger’s spine was bent at about a 160-degree angle, his spinal cord was compressed, restricting his breathing. Because the condition is very rare in Montana, Dr. Gregory McDowell, an orthopedic surgeon with Ortho Montana, asked Dr. Oheneba Boachie, in New York City, if he’d be willing to see Roger.
Hart and Fettig took Roger to New York, and after an evaluation, Boachie agreed to perform the surgery in Billings and covered his own costs. All of his costs in Billings, from physicians to hospital care, also were donated.
McDowell assisted Boachie with the surgery, which went very well. Afterward, Boachie said he was pleased with the outcome and predicted Roger would have a better quality of life and likely a longer life, as well.
Immediately after surgery, there was a lot of pain, Roger said, but he’s doing fine now. He wears a beaded bracelet on his right arm that Boachie gave to him.
Asked why the surgeon gave him the bracelet, Roger replies, “Maybe he likes me,” and smiled.
Hart reminded him there was another reason as well.
“He said there will always be a bond between them now,” she said.
Asked what he enjoys doing these days, Roger said he likes watching TV and enjoys listening to Ugandan music on his laptop computer. He likes to visit people, and he takes pleasure in going to church.
Like other middle-schoolers, he’s also interested in the social scene. During the interview, he asks Fettig if he can go to a school dance, but it falls on the day of some doctor appointments.
Fettig tells him if the appointments are done in time, he’ll bring him over to the school for the dance.
The bell rings and Roger eagerly wheels out of the library to get to his locker to grab what he needs to take home. Fettig muses over what a difference having Roger with him has made in his life.
“It’s just a wonderful Christmas gift,” he said. “He starts singing the first thing in the morning. He’s just happy all the time.”
Roger isn’t afraid to introduce himself to strangers, Fettig said. He’s just someone who really likes people.
Roger is a typical teenager who has his moments, Fettig said, but 99.9 percent of the time, he enjoys life. He displays patience unusual for someone his age who has gone through so much. And he easily expresses gratitude for all that others have done for him.
“He’s changed my life,” Fettig said.