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Tribute to an influential founder

April 15, 2021

Professor Mitiku Belachew was born in June of 1942 in a small village near Ghion, Ethiopia. The exact date is unclear as his birth wasn’t registered until he entered school for the first time at the age of 12.  That’s when his village’s Chief ‘tapped’ him to attend school.  Until then he had been his village’s goat shepherd, a revered and important position for the vitality of his family and village.  From his straw hut with a dirt floor he ascended through schools in Ethiopia to win a spot in Medical School in Liege, Belgium.  He ultimately became a surgeon.

Dr. Belachew went on to become the Chief of Surgery at the Hospital Center Régional De Huy.  Coming from a land of hunger and famine, he specialized in treating severe obesity or the ‘plague of the developed world’, as he described it. Among the earliest surgeons to master laparoscopic surgery he lamented that he did all of his surgery via a scope except to complete bariatric surgery with the original gastric band. He wanted a laparoscopic solution. Unlike many of his peers with the same idea, he said; “Let’s work together to make it happen.”  Nearly 2 years (1992-1993) were dedicated to the development of the laparoscopic technique with brand new evolving instruments, scopes, and operating room equipment.

Collaborating with the company that developed the Lap-Band® (BioEnterics Corp, a division of Inamed), a lengthy series of animal labs was completed as prototypes evolved. This effort culminated in the first human laparoscopic placements of a gastric band, The Lap-Band® System, on September 1st, 1993 at the CHU, Huy, Belgium.  Read the “History of Lap-Band®: from Dream to Reality.” Prof. Belachew went on to host numerous international Lap-Band workshops and traveled the world teaching the surgical technique and presenting his data. He proctored every surgeon in the U.S. clinical trial and served as a monitor until FDA approval in 2001.

Dr. Belachew hosted the Third World Congress of the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity (IFSO) in Bruges, Belgium in 1998 as the President of the Belgian Chapter of IFSO. His final professional presentation was as the honored keynote speaker at the 2003 IFSO congress in Salamanca, Spain.  He opened his talk to approximately 3,000 attendees with the following; “Thank you for your warm welcome and introduction. How ironic and sad that in the time it took you to introduce me, to speak about my career treating severe obesity, in my home country of Ethiopia more people died from starvation today than are in this auditorium.” In the stunned silence that followed he outlined his unlikely path from his humble village to that podium.  He was most proud of having maintained his autonomy as a surgeon; to have chosen what was best for his patients, with no obligations or commercial influence.  (He never benefited financially from the development and commercialization of the Lap-Band. He volunteered his collaboration to help his patients.)  He closed his keynote lecture with the surprise announcement that he was retiring and returning to Ethiopia.

After retirement, Dr. Belachew spearheaded fundraising to build and equip a primary school. Then when the first students aged-out, he did it again to build a secondary school.  He taught laparoscopic surgery in hospitals all over Ethiopia.  At the age of 67, along with several college friends, he climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, suffering a few frost bitten toes.  “Worth it” he said.  Mitiku was well known as a quiet gentleman. When he really wanted to be heard he spoke very softly.  Always the diplomat and statesman, he changed the course of countless arguments among colleagues with “the wine is good.”  He became quite the wine connoisseur, completing a formal sommelier certification late in life.  How many times did he say: “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”  Demanding of excellence he frequently said: “You must be serious about your work.”  But he also added; “One cannot be serious all the time.” 

Mitiku died April 8, 2021 at the age of 78 in Huy, Belgium in his former operating room. While he would not want a ‘fuss’ made, to those of us who were impacted by his expertise, humanitarianism, and mentorship, he deserves international recognition and praise.

Thank you, Dr. Belachew.

Vern Vincent, Lap-Band® Clinical Specialist and Medical Affairs

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Important Lap-Band® System Safety Information

The Lap-Band System is indicated for weight reduction for patients with obesity, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 40 kg/m2 or a BMI of at least 30 kg/m2 with one or more obesity-related comorbid conditions. It is indicated for use only in adult patients who have failed more conservative weight reduction alternatives, such as supervised diet, exercise and behavior modification programs. Patients who elect to have this surgery must make the commitment to accept significant changes in their eating habits for the rest of their lives.

The Lap-Band System is not recommended for non-adult patients (patients under 18 years of age), patients with conditions that may make them poor surgical candidates or increase the risk of poor results, who are unwilling or unable to comply with the required dietary restrictions, or who currently are or may be pregnant.

The Lap-Band System is a long-term implant. Explant and replacement surgery may be required. Patients who become pregnant or severely ill, or who require more extensive nutrition may require deflation of their bands. Anti-inflammatory agents, such as aspirin, should be used with caution and may contribute to an increased risk of band erosion.

Placement of the Lap-Band System is major surgery and, as with any surgery, death can occur. Possible complications include the risks associated with the medications and methods used during surgery, the risks associated with any surgical procedure, and the patient’s ability to tolerate a foreign object implanted in the body. Most common related adverse events include: Band slippage, pouch dilation, stoma obstruction, gastroesophageal reflux, esophageal dilation, cholelithiasis, incisional infection, abdominal pain, gastroenteritis, or nausea and vomiting may occur. Reoperation may be required. Rapid weight loss may result in complications that may require additional surgery. Deflation of the band may alleviate excessively rapid weight loss or esophageal dilation.

Important: For full safety information please click here or talk with your doctor.