Emory doctor brings care for children abroad home to Atlanta

Emory Daily Pulse | Aug. 11, 2016

Story image

Dr. Allen Dollar, an associate professor of medicine in Emory’s Division of Cardiology and chief of cardiology at Grady Memorial Hospital, has been traveling overseas to perform short-term medical work for more than 25 years. Dr. Dollar’s volunteer-work has taken him all over the world, to such countries as Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, India, and Ethiopia.

For the past decade, his international work has focused on Ethiopia, where he travels to provide medical care and teaching in the Addis Ababa School of Medicine, Black Lion Hospital, and at the Gondar Medical College (his most recent trip was in 2014). He also recently spent more than a month treating patients in East Asia after the region was hit by a devastating tsunami.

He and his wife, Shelly, are parents to 11 children—their biological daughters Lauren, Diane, and Stephanie as well as six adopted children from China, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ethiopia (many of whom have health issues) and two foster children from Atlanta. Over the years, they have hosted several other children for medical and educational purposes—at one point, they were guardians of 14 children. The Dollars also help support two families and several children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia who are receiving medical treatment and attending school.

One of their sons, Mesfin, joined the family under rather unusual circumstances—he was once Dr. Dollar’s patient. Mesfin grew up in a family of coffee-farmers in Shafina, a small village in southern Ethiopia that (at the time) did not have cars or electricity. As a teenager, he came down with a bad case of strep throat that eventually led to life-threatening rheumatic heart fever. Mesfin’s biological parents took him to a local doctor, but he was unable to help, telling them that Mesfin desperately needed surgery. Sadly, cardiac surgeons are rare in Ethiopia, a developing country of 94 million people.

Mesfin was dying, and there was nothing his family could do to help him. To avoid being a burden on his parents and 13 brothers and sisters, Mesfin decided to leave home. He walked several miles from his village to the city of Awassa, where he was taken in by a local shelter, the Mother Teresa Home. A few months later, he was sent to the other Mother Teresa Home in Addis Ababa. There, his condition continued to worsen until he was visited by Dr. Rick Hodes, Dr. Allen’s colleague and close friend—an American internist who has lived in Ethiopia for almost 30 years. Dr. Hodes, the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Addis Ababa, diagnosed Mesfin with severe congestive heart failure. Dr. Hodes reached out to his network of colleagues and hospitals in the United States and an Atlanta-based non-profit, Children’s Cross Connections International (with which Dr. Dollar and his wife worked for several years), arranged for Mesfin to travel to Atlanta to have his mitral valve repaired. The surgery went well, and Mesfin spent two months staying with an American sponsor family before returning to Ethiopia.

Dr. Dollar and his son Mesfin

Dr. Dollar and his son Mesfin

However, six weeks after his return, Mesfin’s condition still wasn’t improving. He developed a low-grade fever and an enlarged spleen—indicating an infection of the heart lining that would be fatal without treatment. The infection severely damaged Mesfin’s heart valve, and Dr. Hodes reached out to Dr. Dollar in Atlanta for help. The two doctors arranged for Mesfin to return to Atlanta for a second heart surgery. During the operation, Dr. Dollar and a colleague determined that Mesfin’s heart valve was beyond repair, and that it would need to be replaced with a prosthetic one. This realization, however, presented a serious dilemma: Mesfin would need to be on blood thinners and would need to be monitored closely, and he wouldn’t be able to return to Ethiopia.

After the procedure (which was a success), Dr. Dollar called Shelly and explained that Mesfin wouldn’t be able to return home. “I think we’re going to have another kid,” he said. Mesfin finished out high school living with the Dollars, and later attended Georgia State University. He worked as a respiratory therapist at Emory Healthcare until last month, when he moved to Houston.

As part of their philanthropic efforts, the Dollars founded and serve on the board of directors of Making the Grade, an Atlanta-based non-profit that provides financial aid, medical care, education, and housing to Ethiopian children.