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Bend surgeon who pioneered training Ethiopian neurosurgeons to treat children with spina bifida dies at 76

Dr. Marinus (Dick) Koning saluted for pioneering work in Ethiopia
ReachAnother Foundation
Dr. Marinus (Dick) Koning saluted for pioneering work in Ethiopia

Dr. Marinus 'Dick' Koning chosen for Lifetime Recognition Award

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Dr. Marinus (Dick) Koning, the Dutch-American surgeon who pioneered the training of Ethiopia’s first generation of neurosurgeons to treat babies and children with spina bifida (open-back) and hydrocephalus (water on the brain) saving and transforming thousands of young lives blighted by severe handicaps, has died from a brain tumor in Bend, at the age of 76 after a short illness.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons announced it had selected Dick Koning for the AANS’ 2023 International Lifetime Recognition Award for his work through the U.S.-Dutch ReachAnother Foundation (RAF) he founded. The award recognizes an international neurosurgeon, or other international dignitary, for his or her lifetime of contributions to advancing the field of neurosurgery in a country outside of the United States and Canada.

Ann Stroink, president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, said: “Dick’s tireless service to address spina bifida and hydrocephalus is well- known. Through RAF’s nonprofit programs, Dick has prevented and treated neurologic disorders and improved access to quality medical care for thousands of patients in Ethiopia. He has advanced neurosurgery to the benefit of all, especially for pediatric patients, and for our colleagues working in under-resourced areas around the globe. His neurosurgeon colleagues and many friends across America and around the world heard with great sadness of his death and wish to pay tribute to a man who touched and transformed so many lives.”

In 2017, Dick, and his identical twin brother Jan, also a surgeon, were decorated with knighthoods by the royal household of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in recognition of their establishment of the ReachAnother Foundation. RAF has, since 2009, supported the creation and operations of medical Centers of Excellence in Ethiopia for treating patients and training doctors specialized in neural tube defects.

Jan Koning, President of the ReachAnother Foundation in the Netherlands, said: “I have lost my mirror and lifetime closest friend in Dick, but I’m determined that my twin brother’s work in Ethiopia will continue to be supported by the RAF network of supporters in the Netherlands and beyond. “

In the past 13 years, Reach Another’s Centers of Excellence (CoE) for pediatric neurosurgery have successfully operated on about 10,000 children for spina bifida and hydrocephalus and trained around 70 neurosurgeons in Ethiopia. When Dick Koning first visited Ethiopia in 2009, he realized the extent of the neural tube defects problem in children, but there was only one local neurosurgeon in Africa’s second-most populous country.

The ReachAnother Foundation CoEs currently treat around 2,500 children in total a year, but the intention is to extend their capacity so each center will be able to each handle 1,000 patients annually by 2025. The funding for this work largely comes from ReachAnother’s network of U.S. and Dutch corporate, individual and foundation sponsors.

ReachAnother has also supported research into salt micronutrient fortification to address the lack of sufficient folic acid (B9) in the diet of young women, which is the primary cause of the estimated 40,000 pregnancies affected by neurological defects in Ethiopia each year.

In 2022, RAF appointed its first National Director, Dr. Yakob Seman, to head its local operations in Ethiopia and maintain and extend the work of the foundation begun by Dick.

Dick Koning is survived by his wife and partner of 46 years, Patricia O’Neill, who has assumed the position of President of ReachAnother USA, and by their children Christopher, Elizabeth and Kate.

Patricia O’Neill, president of ReachAnother USA, said: “The best tribute I and the ReachAnother family can make to Dick’s life is to ensure that his legacy continues in the battle against the scourge of spina bifida and hydrocephalus on children’s lives in Ethiopia.

"There is a growing band of trained Ethiopian neurosurgeons that RAF has supported through its Centers of Excellence on the ground and they need our backing as much as ever. We also have to extend our preventive work in the community through the folic acid fortification program and I appeal to RAF’s sponsors in the U.S. and the Netherlands to stay the course with us and ensure that we can win this fight together.”

Dick Koning was born in the eastern Dutch town of Oosterbeek, close to Arnhem, shortly after the Second World War. Some of his earliest memories were of the stories of the devastation wreaked on the area and population by the Battle of Arnhem, which contributed to his and twin brother Jan’s decisions to pursue careers as doctors and to try and transform people’s lives through medical care.

He received his education as a medical doctor at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) between 1964 – 1972. For 30 years, from 1978 – 2008, Dick Koning practiced as a general, laparoscopic and bariatric surgeon in advanced specialty care in Redmond and Bend. He then picked up his surgical baton again in Ethiopia with the establishment of the ReachAnother Foundation in 2009.

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