(Dr. Marinus Koning | Photo Courtesy of ReachAnother Foundation)
Most of us envision retirement as a time to slow down, relax, take up new hobbies, work on our golf game — not so for Dr. Marinus Koning, who has changed the lives of thousands of families in Ethiopia through his organization, ReachAnother Foundation. The story of ReachAnother starts in 2009 when Marinus embarked on a medical mission to Ethiopia just after finishing a long and fulfilling 35-year career as a surgeon in Central Oregon. Quickly after arriving there, Marinus noticed an alarming rate of preventable birth defects (spina bifida and hydrocephalus), a severe lack of medical capacity and little access to necessary surgical equipment to provide adequate care.
With only one neurosurgeon to serve the entire 90+ million population of Ethiopia at the time, many children were put on long waiting lists for a surgery that would not arrive in time. Marinus invited his identical twin brother, Jan, who is also a retired surgeon, to join him in Ethiopia and ReachAnother Foundation (also affectionately known as the “NGO of the Twins,”) was founded by Marinus in the United States and Jan in the Netherlands to train neurosurgeons and build medical capacity to address the neural tube defect crisis in Ethiopia.
In the last 12 years, ReachAnother has provided funding for over 7,500 brain and spinal surgeries for children born with life threatening birth defects, helped train 49 neurosurgeons and donated over $1 million of medical equipment and supplies.
Today, ReachAnother is fighting to prevent these birth defects before they happen using a very valuable public health tool: food fortification with folic acid. Many higher income countries like the United States fortify flour with folic acid to decrease the prevalence of spina bifida and hydrocephalus, however flour is not widely consumed in Ethiopia so ReachAnother had to find a more creative approach. The project is moving quickly, with the first stages of the study of salt fortification already underway. This study will confirm the viability and effectiveness of salt fortification in Ethiopia, with an eye for expansion into other countries facing the challenges of folic acid preventable birth defects in the near future. Once successfully completed and implemented, this project will provide a national solution for 84 percent of Ethiopian women of reproductive age that are at risk of having a child with these serious birth defects. The findings produced will present the necessary evidence-based metrics to ignite a movement for change making Ethiopia a trailblazer in the global movement to prevent thousands of cases of spina bifida and hydrocephalus worldwide.
ReachAnother Foundation is also working with hospitals in the US and in the Netherlands to give thousands of medical instruments a fresh lease on life through the Circular Instrument Project. The instruments are carefully selected and where necessary refurbished and sent to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health for the “Saving Lives Through Safe Surgery” initiative. Dr. Koning said, “Good tools are half the work and we were told stories by newly graduated neurosurgeons in Ethiopia that they could not perform surgery because of a lack of medical instruments. They were moved to tears when we gave them what they needed to start applying their skills with patients immediately.”
If you would like to get involved and support ReachAnother, consider attending their annual “Evening for Ethiopia” Gala on Saturday, October 23 at Aspen Hall for an Ethiopian inspired dinner, live auction, marketplace, dessert dash and more. Seats are limited this year so buy your tickets early at reachanother.org. The ReachAnother Gala is presented by The Ladd Group and Cascade Sotheby’s. Their generous support contributes to creating a better world for all children. Special thanks to Cascade Publications for highlighting ReachAnother’s important work.