Dr. Rick Hodes: Saving lives, one person at a time

Jun 21, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Dr. Rick Hodes: Saving lives, one person at a time

Jun 21, 2023

Akewak Wondimu was 12 years old and living in Ethiopia when he persuaded his nervous mother to take him to the clinic of a doctor who had earned a reputation for healing the very sick. Akewak had kyphosis, a disorder in which an excessive curve of the spine creates an abnormal rounding of the back. The doctor, who had a clinic in Addas Ababa, was “not like a normal doctor,” Akewak recalls.

Dr. Rick Hodes and Akewak“He was so nice and friendly, asking me my name, shaking my hand, speaking to me in Amharic,” Akewak says. “It was actually entertaining to be in his clinic.”

When Akewak removed his shirt for an exam, the doctor noticed he had a scar on his chest. It was the tell-tale sign of heart surgery, which had been performed when Akewak was five years old.

But when the doctor listened to Akewak’s heart with a stethoscope, he told Akewak that he heard something unusual. Medical tests confirmed his suspicions, and slowly, the reality sunk in for Akewak.

“Instead of fixing my heart, the doctors had made a big mistake, and my heart was not fixed,” he says. “When the doctor said I would need another surgery, I was confused because they had already done the surgery!”

Gone untreated, Akewak’s congenital heart defect was slowly killing him. Tests showed he also had a severed pulmonary artery, a rare, life-threatening injury.

Dr. Hodes and AkewakToday, Akewak Wondimu is a thriving 26-year-old with a college degree in biochemistry from Metropolitan State University of Denver, a second family in Denver, a career in Colorado, and a healthy heart and spine. He represents just one of the many lives that have been saved by the lifelong work of Dr. Rick Hodes, Medical Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Ethiopia.

No single professional title can fully explain the level of commitment of Dr. Hodes to his wide-ranging international work. He has been compared to Mother Teresa—apropos because, for many years, his clinic was in her mission in Ethiopia. Like Mother Teresa, he cares for those in need with a single-minded focus on a simple but extraordinary goal—saving lives, one person at a time because “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” (Talmud Sanhedrin)

Taking an international journey to new medical destinations

Where did Dr. Hodes’ journey begin? As a middle schooler, when other boys liked to read stories of sports or space heroes, he chose biographies of Albert Schweitzer and Tom Dooley, with accounts of their medical work in Africa and Asia.

When he decided to go to medical school, he picked the University of Rochester, with its emphasis on the biopsychosocial model of medicine where, Hodes says, “You see a patient not just as a disease but also as a person.”

During medical school, he spent a summer in Bangladesh and a winter in South India. He trained in internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and then moved to Ethiopia to teach at the medical school for a year as a Fulbright Scholar. That was in 1985. Since then, he has rarely left the country.

In 1990, he was hired by JDC to take charge of the health of Ethiopian Jews preparing to leave the country. In a 24-hour period during May 1991, Operation Solomon transported 14,400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Hodes stayed on in Ethiopia to care for thousands of Jews still waiting to go to Israel, including Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who had converted to Christianity under duress.

His adopted country would teach him more about the practice of medicine than he learned in medical school.

“In every sense of the word, I had to learn a different language,” he says. “Yes, I had to learn Amharic, but I also had to learn Ethiopian medicine. For example, in the U.S. we have plenty of heart attacks. In Ethiopia, we saw maybe see three heart attacks a year at the University Hospital. But what we did see was congenital heart disease and hearts damaged by rheumatic fever. It was a new realm of medicine for me.”

As the decades passed, this physician who had trained in internal medicine became a self-taught expert in other fields, so experienced and authoritative that fellow physicians often mistake him for a specialist.

Dr. Hodes and a patientHe had never done an orthopedic or neurosurgery rotation, but Ethiopian patients with spine issues started finding him. More kept coming, and he knew what he had to do: “I saw my role as taking care of Ethiopians with deformed spines.” Ethiopia has a population of 120 million people, with 500 new deformity patients presenting for care every year and thousands more in the countryside. For unknown reasons, thousands of children in Ethiopia suffer from congenital spine conditions so severe that humps grow from their backs. It is, Hodes says, the “largest collection of the worst spine deformities in the world.” His reputation grew, and more patients lined up to see him, including people with heart issues and with cancer.

At the beginning of May on a personal and fundraising trip to the United States, he brought a blood sample from a woman in Ethiopia who, he believed, was demonstrating symptoms of Wilson’s Disease, a genetic disorder that causes life-threatening damage when copper builds up in vital organs. As he awaited the lab results, he was hoping against hope that his diagnosis was correct because it would mean this patient could be treated and saved.

It seems you can take the man out of Ethiopia, but you cannot take Ethiopia out of the man. Always, Dr. Rick is focused on saving lives, one person at a time.

Creating an Ethiopian family

In 1999, Hodes encountered two abandoned orphans with spinal tuberculosis, one with a spine at a 90-degree angle and one at 120-degrees. He knew what their future held.

“They would become paralyzed and die,” he says. “I wanted to get surgery for them, but it is nearly impossible to find free spine surgery.”

Then he had an idea. If he adopted the children, he could add them to his personal health insurance.

“I was walking along one day, worrying about these kids,” he says. “I looked up at the sky and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ A few days later, G-d sent a fax to my brain, and I had the answer: ‘You are being offered the chance to help these boys. Don’t say no.’”

His two adopted sons had surgery in Dallas, Texas. During his spring trip to the U.S, 24 years after Dr. Hodes found the children, one son graduated from pharmacy school in Atlanta, Georgia. The other son, a businessman in Ethiopia, flew in for the graduation. Dr. Hodes also came to the U.S. for the graduation, but he had to delay his departure from Ethiopia by one day because he received a call from a patient whom he had treated for a spinal deformity.

“I’m getting married on Sunday and I am an orphan,” the young man said. “Would you come to the wedding and be my father?” And, of course, Dr. Hodes changed his plane reservation to be the father of the groom.

Dr. Hodes, Awewak, and Malek familyHe has stayed close with Akewak through the many years since he first listened to the boy’s heart and heard the “whooshing” sound of a PDA—patent ductus arteriosus—a condition in babies when a blood vessel that normally closes just after birth does not close on its own.

“I had no idea what I was listening to, because he had surgery when he was younger to close the PDA,” Hodes says. “They did the surgery and actually made things worse. He lived for seven years, comes to me, and says ‘I have a bad back,’ when he is slowly dying because of his heart.”

Hodes sprang into action, asking his friend Dr. Stephen Berman (z”l) at Colorado Children’s Hospital to arrange heart surgery and enlisting Kim Schneider Malek and her family to host Akewak for six months while he was treated in Colorado. The Maleks stayed in touch with Akewak when he returned to Ethiopia and supported his efforts to get a college education in the U.S. Akewak calls them his “second family.”

These days, in their bi-weekly conversations, Dr. Hodes likes to tease Akewak about his “wife” even though Akewak isn’t married. But their relationship is based on something far more serious than this running joke.

“The day that I went to his clinic changed my life,” Akewak says. “It was G-d’s work that led me to Dr. Rick. He was not just my doctor. He is my savior. He saved my life.”

Answering the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew?’

Dr. Hodes is a baal teshuva who describes his religious upbringing as “Judaism light.” “There is beautiful depth and wisdom to Judaism that I did not get growing up,” he says. “I went looking for it.”

Dr. Rick Hodes with a patientHe spent time in Israel and became more observant. In his home in Addas Ababa, he and his Ethiopian family, which includes Christians and a Muslim, celebrate weekly Shabbat. As he practices his faith, he believes G-d is always leading him to find new ways to further his mission.

Case in point. On a trip to Minneapolis, he overslept and didn’t have time for morning prayers before an early fundraising meeting. After the meeting, he told his driver, “Take me to the nearest synagogue, so I can at least put on tefillin properly.” At the synagogue, he exchanged pleasantries with another man studying with a rabbi. “And what do you do here?” he asked.

“I’m a skull based neurosurgeon,” his companion said.

And that’s all it took for Dr. Hodes to pull out his computer and show photos of a woman in Ethiopia with a disfiguring and life-threatening brain tumor the size of an orange, so large it was pushing her eye out of her face. Dr. Hodes is a persuasive man, but it did not take much persuading for the neurosurgeon to agree to bring this patient to the United States for free, life-changing surgery.

“If you had told me that a Jew putting on tefillin would save the life of a Muslim woman, I would have said it was impossible,” Hodes says. “But that is what happened.”

Dr. Hodes speaks at JEWISHcolorado

Dr. Hodes speaks at JEWISHcolorado

Ask Dr. Hodes what he needs, and he does not beat around the bush: “I need sleep and money.”

He would be thrilled if a spine surgeon reading these words would volunteer to come to Ethiopia to do surgery. He invites anyone to come and visit him in Addas Ababa to see his work. And he would love to see additional donations to help build a spine center where he can centralize care—evaluation, surgery, and rehabilitation—in one location in Ethiopia.

“People have the opportunity to donate to us,” he says. “It’s wonderful to know that you are changing a life half-way around the world.”

Despite the comparisons to Mother Teresa, Dr. Hodes does not consider himself a saint. His work reflects his heart-felt commitment to Judaism. More than a decade ago, while he was treating refugees from Zaire in Tanzania, he pulled out his kippah to begin afternoon prayers.

One of the patients in the room said to him, “Doctor, are you a Muslim?”

“No,” he replied. “I am a Jew.”

The man said to him, “What does it mean to be a Jew? What is the point of your religion?”

Dr. Rick Hodes thought for a moment and replied, “The Jewish people have been asked by G-d to be an example to the world of three things: honesty, morality, and kindness. That is the point of being Jewish.”

And that is why Dr. Rick Hodes saves lives, one person at a time because “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

To make a donation to the work Dr. Hodes is doing in Ethiopia:

Go to: https://www.jewishcolorado.org/donate/ Scroll down to: “Choose your designation” Scroll down to: Ethiopia – Emergency Response