Elias Mollell of Tanzania rang in the New Year with sharp pain in his hips.
That's a good thing.
"There's some new pain around his hips and legs which might be a good sign that his nerves are growing back," says Dr. Jeremy Normington, director of physical therapy at Cherokee Regional Medical Center and Elias Mollell's best American buddy.
"We won't have a real good idea on his long-term recovery until spring as these nerves will grow back slowly," Normington cautions.
Still, his friend has something he didn't have a few weeks ago: A chance.
Mollell and Normington met six years ago when Normington, then a student, completed a physical therapy rotation at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Tanzania. He was greeted at work each day by the affable Mollell, then a 29-year-old attempting to walk again five years after his back was crushed when the mine shaft he and eight miners worked in collapsed.
Mollell, a former champion sprinter, was buried to his neck.
Though he couldn't work or walk, Mollell was lucky; the other eight men were killed in the 1995 blast.
Mollell's fiancee, who had given birth to their son, left the injured miner, fearing he could not provide for the family. The baby was 3 months old and remains under the care of Mollell's extended family.
Mollell, ultimately, came under Normington's care. The physical therapist from Northwest Iowa became Mollell's sponsor, arranging for a medical visa that would allow Mollell to travel to the United States for a spinal fusion.
Normington and his associates in Cherokee didn't stop there. They approached Peter Thoreen, CEO of St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Sioux City, about providing facilities and personnel should a surgery for Mollell take place. Thoreen agreed.
Surgery happened Dec. 8 under the direction of Drs. Steven Meyer and Quentin Durward of the Center for Neurosciences Orthopaedics and Spine. They were assisted by Dr. John W. McClellan III, of the Nebraska Spine Center. The project was a natural for Meyer, a surgeon who heads the Siouxland Tanzania Education Medical Ministries, a medical missionary group that has performed 450 orthopaedic surgeries in Mollell's home country the past decade.
According to Normington, surgeons had to re-break Mollell's lumbar No. 1, reposition it, then fuse it with rods and screws. Spinal fusions like this, he says, often cost more than $50,000.
"As of now, Elias has not had to pay a single dime," says Normington, who lauded the medical professionals involved for their charitable work. "And now people are asking if they can give to Elias to help him when he returns home."
On Wednesday, Normington worked to set up accounts for his pal at two banks in Cherokee.
"Elias and I spoke to a grade school in Moville (Iowa) and they took a collection and just sent us an envelope with about $160 in it," Normington says. "That will get Elias by for about three months in Tanzania."
The average annual income in Tanzania is $300. There was no way a man in Mollell's position could afford the surgery that may literally get him on his feet again.
"One way to glorify God is by showing love to our brothers," says Normington.
That demonstration of love didn't end with surgery. Normington and Mark Stephenson of Cherokee, with whom Mollell resides as he recovers, took a three-day trip to Chicago.
"The City of Broad Shoulders" provides pictures and memories for Mollell to take home and share with his family.
Siouxland gives him something more: Lasting friends and, just maybe, the ability to one day walk without pain.