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One Life At A Time: Dr. Rick Hodes Is Changing Lives

Lewis-101813-Baby

Lewis-101813-ChildrenIn 1999, Hodes opened his heart even wider. He met two abandoned orphans with tuberculosis of the spine who had ended up at the Catholic mission. One boy had a 90-degree angle in his spine, the other a 120-degree angle. After trying unsuccessfully to arrange free surgery for the boys, Hodes decided that the easiest way to get free medical help would be to adopt them. Then he adopted a third. One son recently graduated with a degree in chemistry and is now applying to pharmacy school. The second has been studying with a rabbi in Israel until the fall when he will start engineering school in Boston. With a wry sense of humor, Hodes notes, “Serial adoption is probably not the answer to spine disease in Africa.”

However, the kernel of a revolutionary idea had sprouted. Many of Hodes’ patients have severe scoliosis or kyphosis (hunchbacks) due to tuberculosis. Surgical intervention is needed to prevent further curvature, chest compression, and early death. Since each procedure costs approximately $18,000 (transportation, the surgery, and post-operation care), treatment remained the stuff that dreams are made of. Then, in 2006, the JDC launched a non-sectarian spine program steered by Hodes together with Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei. Dr Boachie, based in New York, travels to Ghana with an international team several times a year where some of the most deformed children ever to be seen are helped at less than ten percent the cost of American treatment. “Two of the eleven children who returned from surgery in Ghana this July left Addis in wheelchairs and are now walking,” says Hodes. Eight-year-old Tesfau, from Mirabeti, a village 120 miles from Addis Ababa, lived in a home a 12 hour donkey ride from the main road. Injury left him paralyzed until he underwent traction and two surgeries in Ghana. Fourteen-year-old Alazar, who spent six months paralyzed, plans on becoming a heart surgeon now that he can walk—his best friend has a heart problem. To date, well over 200 children have undergone spine surgery.

 

Ripples in the Pool

In an address at Brandeis University this May, Hodes quoted Mother Teresa who said: “I alone cannot change the world. But I can cast a stone across the waters, to create many ripples.” Making enough ripples to start a tidal wave, Hodes is upgrading medical care in Ethiopia. With more than 70 percent of childhood deaths attributable to communicable diseases and malnutrition, Ethiopia’s healthcare resources have understandably been directed primarily to treat and prevent diseases such as malaria and diarrhea. Most Ethiopians with heart problems, cancer, and tumors never have the chance to seek help. One by one, Hodes is tackling each area and enlisting others to help. “I have no expectations of people,” Hodes confides. “So I’m not disappointed if they don’t help.” However, contact with Hodes brings out the best in people, inspiring them to give of themselves and donate to his projects. Half a smile in his voice, he renounces himself: “I’m a professional beggar.”

Befekadu in the cockpit of the Delta flight after landing

Befekadu in the cockpit of the Delta flight after landing

In the 1990’s, he introduced the Save a Child’s Heart  (SACH) program in Ethiopia. This Israeli-based international humanitarian project provides pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries, bringing them to the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

After treating two boys for bone cancer, Hodes helped American Mary Louise Cohen start a pediatric cancer program at the Black Lion Hospital, which is affiliated with the Addis Ababa University School of Medicine. Visiting radiation oncologist Dr. Jeff Forman from Michigan arrived in Addis with the Sherman Leadership Mission of the Detroit Jewish Federation, and after examining Feleke, an eleven-year-old suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, offered to provide free radiation therapy for the boy. Feleke is now cancer-free and being adopted by his host-family in Michigan. This July, Hodes flew to the States taking a second child to the same oncologist.

As Hodes’ reputation has grown, he has become the address for some of the most horrific cases of disfigurement from facial growths. In stark contrast to a patient in a Western country, who’ll visit his doctor or dentist if he suspects something abnormal, sufferers in Ethiopia have no address to turn to. “There’s a lack of medical care and no expert to deal with these complex problems,” explains Hodes. Try to imagine a twenty-one-year old girl with a jaw tumor the size of a bowling ball, an eighteen-year-old with a tennis ball-sized tumor that diminished eyesight in one eye, clogged one nostril, and caused a chronic, foul-smelling nasal discharge. After undergoing surgery in Munich, these patients can face the world.

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