March 22, 2007
The righteous doctor of Ethiopia—healing suffering in the world heads this Orthodox physician’s
When Dr. Rick Hodes prepares a to-do list, it doesn't look like anybody else's.
It includes checking someone's MRI for severe scoliosis, discussing someone else's false positive HIV test, paying boarding school fees for his Ethiopian-born sons, preparing heart patients to be examined by Israeli cardiologists, getting a U.S. visa so a 4-year-old with an abdominal mass can get American medical treatment -- and buying rat poison for his home.
The list goes on and on, and that's just for one morning of one day. Every day, he said, "is a balancing act."
Hodes, 53, who is Orthodox, has taken some unexpected turns in his life, despite what could be described as a rather normal 1950s childhood. He said that he grew up in a nonreligious home in Long Island, and that he's the only observant Jew in his immediate family.
His father was in the insurance business and his mother took care of the home. He attended Middlebury College, then went to the University of Rochester Medical School, graduating in 1982 and doing his internship and residency at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore.
The life-defining change of direction came between 1985 and 1988, when he was a Fulbright lecturer in medicine at the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Two years later in 1990, Hodes returned to Ethiopia as director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's (JDC) medical programs in that country, managing two medical clinics -- in Addis Ababa and Gondar City -- which care for 15,000 Falash Mura (Ethiopian Jews), many of whom are hoping to make aliyah.
Hodes supervises a staff of three full-time doctors, a fourth part-time doctor, many nurses, one midwife and one JDC volunteer in providing treatment, immunizations, pre- and postnatal care, health education and family-planning services, as well as nutritional assistance.
He is also an adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Health. "I've probably been the doctor for about 1 percent of Israel," he said, smiling, "because I was the doctor for the 25,000 people who went during Operation Solomon, and I've taken care of many people since."
And if that isn't enough, he's also a volunteer physician at the Mother Teresa Mission in Addis Ababa, attending there nearly every day. He started their oncology program and regularly treats children for cancer and other ailments.
From early in the morning until late at night, nonstop, Hodes orders medicines, approves procedures, does work-ups on spine patients and deals with his own children.
Yes, his own children. On top of everything else, he's a single dad, having adopted five sons. Four of his adopted sons have been in his care since undergoing treatment, three for horrendous back problems, one for a growth hormone deficiency.
Hodes said being a father to these boys is "not like a fake marriage. They're my kids, period, in every sense of the word." Two of his teenage sons, Addisu and Semegn, are now in boarding school in Ohio.
Besides those he has officially adopted, there are usually "around 15 kids, mostly boys" -- and also a couple of girls -- staying in the two homes that he rents, the older boys living in the "satellite home." Many of these kids are at some stage of medical recovery.
Hodes is wiry, short, energetic, with round glasses, bright eyes and a grip like steel. An Orthodox Jew, he normally wears a kippah, but on a recent visit to Los Angeles, he was wearing a baseball cap. Dr. Rick, as he's known to the thousands of patients he's treated -- in many cases for ailments unknown in the West -- made a brief visit to Southern California to meet with people interested in his work. The JDC organized gatherings in which potential donors could meet Hodes and hear about his work firsthand.
People who have visited Hodes, written about him or supported his work have called him everything from a "lamed-vavnik" to the tzadik of Addis Ababa, one of the righteous people trying to heal the suffering in the world. It's impossible to be with him, even for a short while, and not feel that this man, unassuming in his manner, is cut from the same mold as Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa.
Explaining why there are so many people afflicted with terribly misshapen backs in Ethiopia, Hodes said, "there are a couple of things. One is the lack of medical care, which means that a little scoliosis will turn into huge scoliosis if it's not treated. Another thing is that [in Ethiopia] there's tuberculosis of the spine, which you don't see in the West.... Right now, I have probably 20 cases that I'm dealing with.
"For example, there's a shoeshine boy, he must be 17 years old, and he comes to Addis Ababa every summer to shine shoes. On a good day, he makes about a dollar a day, and he saves money to pay for his school fees. So he was in over the summer, and one of his customers saw that he had a terrible back and told him, 'Call Rick Hodes, here's his cell phone number.'
"So this shoeshine boy spent all the money he'd made that day to make the phone call.... He had very bad scoliosis, and I did all the tests and X-rays and so on. Last week he was accepted for surgery, and he'll be going to Ghana in May."
Hodes said that the thing he likes best is "helping people that nobody else would ever consider helping. And being able to do it in an extraordinary way."
One day, he was at Mother Teresa's Mission in Addis Ababa when his assistant stepped outside for a moment and saw a tiny boy with a deformed back. The assistant called the boy over and told him that in the mission there was a doctor who could help him.
"So this little boy came inside. He weighed less than 40 pounds." Treatment started almost immediately, and Hodes gives him money every week so he can strengthen his body with milk and eggs. "I love these so-called chance things. I mean, time after time things like that happen to me. I had this kid with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta. He was breaking his bones [all the time] .... I spoke with a guy at Johns Hopkins, where I had trained, and he told me there's a drug called Pamidronate. One day I'm leading around some medical students, and I tell them that this kid needs Pamidronate, made in Europe by Novartis. That may be the first time I ever said the word 'Novartis.'
"The second that I said the word, somebody tapped me on the shoulder, a tall white guy who says, 'I'm a visitor here, and I work for Novartis.' And I said, 'Really?' So we exchanged information, and he sent me a two-year supply ... and the kid stopped breaking his bones. A month or two later, he got out of his wheelchair and started walking again.
"Another story: I was at the hospital in Gondar City, and I ran into a doctor who said, 'I have a patient, let me show you.' And he took me over and showed me this 12-year-old girl who's been living in the hospital for three years, who has a 100-degree angle of her spine. A little more than a right angle. A big V in her back. TB causes a V-shaped back.
"And I examined her, and I thought I would really like to help her, but you can't do those tests in Gondar, so I needed to get her to Addis. So I went through all the hoops and got official authority, and I took her on the plane with me to Addis Ababa and brought her to Mother Teresa's, and I did all the tests and got her an MRI, and all that.... I'm funding her education, and she was just accepted for surgery. She also has terrible eyesight, and I made sure that she had glasses made by an American optometrist.
"I'm really happy with someone like this, whom nobody was interested in helping, an abandoned orphan ... you know, you are in one of the poorest countries in the world, where the average income is $110 per year, and this girl is abandoned by her family ... and she doesn't even have a home, she's living in the hospital. The idea that we can help her and turn her life around, for not a lot of money, is a fantastic thing."
Is there something about his Jewishness that led him on this path?
"What I do is because of my nature," Hodes said. "But the way I do it is through my religion." He said that every Saturday, he works as a volunteer physician at Mother Teresa's mission, seeing many patients who might perish otherwise.
"There's no minyan on my side of the city," he said, explaining why he works on Shabbat. "And even if there was, saving lives is a higher priority."
"It's a very Jewish life that I live, in a very unusual place to live a Jewish life."
For more information, visit the Joint Distribution Committee Web site, email Carol Jacobi, or call her at (310) 454-5401.