Dr. Tiliksew Teshome Tessema believes there should be no barriers in the way of patient access to quality eye care. That’s why he spends much of his career working tirelessly to knock them down.
“He is a courageous pioneer who challenges the status quo,” says Alemayehu Tefera, MD, one of Dr. Tessema’s students and colleagues.
That’s exactly what Dr. Tessema needed to do to introduce vitrectomy surgery to Ethiopia just fourteen years ago. At that time, patients who needed even simple retinal surgery had to travel abroad for treatment. Unfortunately, very few people could afford to do that, so hundreds would go blind each year from common conditions like diabetic retinopathy and retinal detachment. This fueled Dr. Tessema's vision to prevent blindness and provide better options to patients.
But he faced numerous obstacles. First, he had to overcome decades of consensus among Ethiopia’s ophthalmic community that retinal surgery was prohibitively expensive and “unsuitable” for a developing country. Then, he needed to raise the money to obtain and maintain surgical equipment and supplies. Finally, he had to form a competent team that could not only perform operations but also understand how to make the most of limited resources to maximize outcomes. Even if he accomplished all of this, he still faced an uphill battle.
“In Ethiopia, it is common for patients not to seek treatment even after losing vision in one eye,” Dr. Tessema said. The majority only come to the doctor when the second eye goes blind. This makes it much more challenging to restore vision and achieve a good outcome.”
In 2006 Dr. Tessema established the first vitreo-retinal surgical center in Ethiopia inside his own private practice clinic in Addis Ababa. Since then, he has personally performed more than 7,000 retinal surgeries.
“My most rewarding moments have been restoring the vision of young people who had gone blind from retinal detachment. These patients believed their future was shattered. But after a successful operation, they could go back to school or go on to earn a living with useful vision—something they didn’t think possible.”
His determination and success have inspired other ophthalmologists to follow in his footsteps. Over the past 14 years, four additional retinal surgery practices have opened in Ethiopia. Dr. Tessema was also the first ophthalmologist to introduce anti-VEGF treatment in his country. Now, he regularly helps hundreds of patients each week to manage macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy with these sight-saving therapies.
In addition to improving the lives of patients, Dr. Tessema plays a pivotal role in training and technical support to the ministry of health, the Ophthalmological Society of Ethiopia, where he has served as president, and the European Retina Society.
He has taught and trained hundreds of ophthalmologists over the past 20 years as an associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at Addis Ababa University. There, colleagues and students describe him as “an exemplary teacher who is also continuously learning.”
The doctors he has helped to train constitute more than 60 percent of the ophthalmologist workforce in the country. Thanks to his demonstrated passion and courage, they, too are pushing the boundaries of eye care for the next generation of patients in Ethiopia and other developing countries.