LEWISBURG, Pa. - Kodjo Karikari has spent the past two years learning about the intricacies of the brain at Bucknell University, as he reaches for his dream of becoming a doctor.
A native of Ghana, Karikari came to the United States several years ago to pursue educational opportunities with the hope of returning to his home country one day to give back.
Karikari, a neuroscience major who is slated to graduate May 22, has placed those aspirations on hold, however, as he seeks to help his 17-year-old sister, Akua Adoma Ofori, who was diagnosed late last year with a brain tumor. Ofori, who lives in Ghana, has a stage-3 pilocytic astrocytoma and low-grade glioma on her thalamus — the control center of the brain. She began to experience symptoms including severe headaches, disorientation and memory loss in October. She now is bedridden and unable to control her own basic movements or to complete normal daily tasks.
"The tumor is putting a lot of pressure on her brain," Karikari said. "She has a shunt in the brain to drain fluid caused by the tumor. But as the tumor grows, it hinders other areas and might cause destruction of other regions of the brain. She also has developed diabetes and thyroid issues as a side effect of her medications."
Life-saving surgery Although the tumor is operable, the hospitals in Ghana's capital city, Accra, where Ofori is being treated, do not have the equipment or facilities to perform the life-saving surgery she needs. Karikari, a Bucknell Community College Scholar who transferred from Harrisburg Area Community College in 2008, now is looking to his adopted community for help in bringing Ofori to the United States for treatment. His family is depending on him to find a hospital that will take on Ofori's surgery and long-term treatment as a charity case and to raise the needed funds to support that treatment.
Karikari, 23, and his mother, Juliana Oates, are permanent residents of the United States, but Oates does not have health insurance and cannot afford the operation or aftercare for her daughter. The family likely could cover the expense of flying Ofori and her mother, who has returned to Ghana to care for Ofori, to the United States, Karikari said.
Spaghetti dinner fundraiser Karikari is working with Bucknell International Student Services, the Bucknell African Students Association and the Bucknell University Student Transfer Association as well as several community members to raise awareness and funds for Ofori's care through the Walk On Foundation.
The student groups had raised about $8,000 as of May 9 through the Walk On Foundation and a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Lewisburg Alliance Family Life Center May 7, said Paula Myers, assistant dean of students and director of International Student Services, who is helping to coordinate fundraising efforts. The Alliance church contributed about $1,000 of that amount. The student groups plan to work with another church for a second fundraising dinner using leftover food donations.
Anyone wishing to make a donation of any kind may contact Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monetary donations will be accepted through the Walk On Foundation website or by mailing a check to Walk On Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 62, Mifflinburg, PA 17844.
The group also is accepting recommendations of medical professionals and hospitals in the United States that might agree to treat Ofori.
Depending on others Karikari is grateful for the support of his fellow students and the community, he said. But as the oldest son of a single mother, he is more or less the patriarch of the family, and having to depend on others for help has not been easy for him.
"If I could make this happen, this would be the greatest achievement of my life," Karikari said. "I would be willing to do anything for my sister to return her back to health and to make sure my family is well and situated. Time is really not on our side. If I could do the surgery myself with the materials and knowledge I have, I would. But I have to rely on other people to help my sister."
Before her diagnosis, Ofori was attending a secondary school in Ghana with plans to attend college in the United States and work toward a master's degree, Karikari said.
"She's really funny, lively and energetic and full of dreams and aspirations," he said.
High stakes Karikari has tried to explain to his family what is happening with his sister's illness without scaring them, but the reality is his sister will die without the operation, and she could have complications.
"Where the tumor is located has vital tissue," Karikari said. "The quality of life she will get after the surgery rests on how well the surgery goes."
Ofori's condition is worsening.
"You can hear by the sound of her voice that she is slowly deteriorating, which is saddening," he said. "She knows what's going on, and she is fighting really hard. I just wish her fighting would not be in vain."
Karikari, who now volunteers at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg and eventually wants to become a pediatric oncologist, orthopedic surgeon or general surgeon, said facing his sister's illness has made him more determined than ever to meet his goals. But he wants to share his success with his family.
"As the first person in my family graduating from college, I would be extremely happy if my family was there to share in the moment, because that moment belongs to us all."
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