Glendale Adventist Academy High School student A.J. Martinson knew little about podoconiosis before he stepped off a plane in Ethiopia in November 2008.
But there in front of him were the grotesquely swollen feet, the primary symptom of the disease that has infected about 1 million of the nation’s poor.
He was accompanying his cousin, Dr. Larry Thomas, co-founder of Tropical Health Foundation Alliance, who has traveled to rural portions of Ethiopia repeatedly for more than a decade to provide health care to underserved communities.
“The poverty is just intense over there,” A.J. said. “There are sick people, and literally dead people in the middle of the road.”
Despite the shock, A.J. set about putting his longtime passion for cinematography to use, filming hours and hours of video footage on a small camcorder. He returned to Southern California two weeks later and set aside his work.
It was left untouched until this past fall, when his cousin invited him to return to Ethiopia to shoot additional footage, and to produce a mini-documentary about podoconiosis and the efforts of the Tropical Health Foundation Alliance to eradicate it.
“It was still a complete shock because I thought I knew what to expect … but it was absolutely mind-blowing, everything that was going on there,” A.J., now 17, said.
The elephantiasis-like disease is caused by a fiber in the soil in high-elevation geographical areas, said Thomas, 62, who also works as an emergency room doctor in Hemet and Sun City, Calif. Rural people are often too poor to afford shoes, so the fiber penetrates their skin, causing itching and scarring. It is often followed by secondary bacterial infections.
“They just get massive swelling of their legs from about the knees down; a lot of them develop big nodules almost like cauliflower,” Thomas said. “It is very unsightly. But more than that, the smell is terrible.”
In Ethiopia there is a deep stigma surrounding podoconiosis — patients are often ostracized, leaving them unable to attend school or church. Podoconiosis is treatable and preventable, but it generates little attention from the international health community, despite 4 million cases worldwide and 1 million cases in Ethiopia, Thomas said.
“It is a very neglected disease,” Thomas said. “I had never heard of it until I went out to Ethiopia.”
When A.J. returned from his second trip, he wrote the script for his documentary. He then began working through his footage, pulling the clips he found most compelling. And using Adobe Premiere Pro, he put together a six-minute documentary.
“Every kid has a talent,” said Ben Garcia, A.J.'s religion teacher at Glendale Adventist. “A.J.'s talent is his work with the camera. I encourage the students [to] find what you’re good at doing, pursue it, but also use that talent to serve others. And he did that.”
A.J. said he hopes to pursue a career in the film industry, and has applied to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. He is already at work on additional projects, and the work has allowed him to put his passion to use in a good way, he said.
“It is doubly impactful for me because if awareness gets out about this disease, and enough funding is there to provide shoes for these small towns and villages, it could be gone in 20 years,” A.J. said. “And the fact that I could help with that is awesome.”