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Keeping a 9/11 Victim's Dream Alive

Charity: Supporters persist in pursuit of a Burbank doctor's efforts to fund a kidney dialysis center in his native Ethiopia.


Terrorists killed Yeneneh Betru, but they could not murder his dream. It survives in the physician's friends, his family, his neighbors and even in strangers.

They nurse it through the sale of flag-shaped lapel pins and knitted baby caps, through proceeds from a theater performance and private donations.

They are preserving his memory by casting their attention on 4 million Ethiopians living in Betru's native city of Addis Ababa.

Their hope is to open Addis Ababa's first public kidney dialysis center--a mission that Betru, 35, had spent three years working toward before Sept. 11, when he was on his way home to Burbank after making arrangements for the dialysis machines in Ethiopia. After stopping in Washington, he decided to fly back a day early. He boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which later crashed into the Pentagon.

"It wasn't a question of 'Should we do it?' " said Ruth Betru, 29, by phone from Addis Ababa of her brother's project. "We had to continue it."

Although other men might use their garages to tinker with their cars, Betru used his to refurbish dialysis machines. Other times he could be found on the phone, negotiating with the Ethiopian government on an inexpensive and efficient way to ship medical equipment to the Tikur Anbessa Hospital, or Black Lion Hospital, the nation's largest.

Before he was killed, Betru had gathered $15,000 worth of equipment and fixed up six dialysis machines.

But when friends and family tried to pick up his journey, hospital administrators said they could not accept used machines--especially old ones that might be hard to repair or to find parts for. Instead, they needed four brand-new machines.

The cost of training staff and maintaining the center, they discovered, would total roughly $350,000.

Other roadblocks--wary hospital administrators, transport taxes and enough paperwork to give accountants migraines--slowed the process. But friends and family persisted.

Nurses at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where Betru worked in internal medicine, raised $7,000 by selling the lapel pins and baby caps.

Money poured in from the Red Cross, United Way, Operation USA, the World Foundation for Renal Care, the Health Care Advisory Board and even the Gamma Phi Beta Sorority at UC Santa Barbara.

All the proceeds from a Valley College performance of "Sweet Charity" went to the future Dr. Yeneneh Betru Hemodialysis Unit.

A North Hollywood company where Betru served as director of medical affairs, IPC-The Hospitalist Co., set up its Salud Foundation to funnel money toward the dialysis center.

So far, about $60,000 has been raised, said Earl Gomberg, executive director of IPC and the Institute for Better Breathing, where Betru also saw patients. That covers the cost of some equipment, which is being shipped from Sweden.

Friends and colleagues had hoped to open the center Sept. 11, but have had to target the end of the year instead. Before that, a 45,000-square-foot room must be secured for the center, transport taxes must be paid and Ethiopian doctors and nurses must be trained to operate the machines.

As the one-year anniversary of the death of the gentle, soft-spoken physician approaches, Betru's presence remains strong. It lingers in a crape myrtle sapling, planted in July behind a row of five palm trees at Providence St. Joseph in the doctor's honor.

His relaxed appearance is frozen in a framed photo of him hanging inside the waiting room of the Burbank-based Institute of Better Breathing. A small plaque in a blue frame reads "In Loving Memory, Yeneneh Betru, M.D., September 11, 2001."

A two-tiered mail holder labeled with Betru's name still sits in a sparse office there, too, waiting for the mail that has ceased to come.

To neighbor John Edmondson, 65, the one-story, white stucco house next door will always be "Doc's House." Folks with breathing problems would occasionally knock on Betru's door, Edmondson said, and despite his long days, Betru would always check to make sure they were OK.

With tears filling his light blue eyes, Edmondson described how he bought a set of used golf clubs for Betru. A retired engineer, Edmondson had promised Betru that they would hit the links someday. They never got the chance.

Inside Betru's one-story house with rust-colored shingles, George Mandossian, 66, brushed his fingers over the stereo of the man whose home he will move into next month.

For the past year, it was in the dining room of this two-bedroom, two-bathroom house that Gomberg convened weekly meetings of dialysis specialists to discuss the project's logistics.

A few houses down, James Miceli recalled how Betru opened his door when he first moved in three years ago for a meet and greet, complete with Ethiopian food.

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