Nomad Africa Magazine - - Man On A Mission | Dr Rick Hodes - Words: JA­NIS THERON

Stand up tall and stretch your hands up to the sky. Go on, try it. Now bend down and touch your toes. Do you find this dif­fi­cult? Skip a lit­tle, maybe do a cart­wheel. These things come nat­u­rally to most of us. With our healthy spines we walk up­right, we go run­ning for ex­er­cise, we do yoga and we en­joy swim­ming.

as chil­dren, we felt free to run, climb and hide. To play cricket, rugby, hockey and soc­cer. As we get older, many of us, iron­i­cally, put far too much pres­sure on our spines, sit­ting in­doors dur­ing 8-hour work­ing days. Mostly on com­put­ers, glued to the screens with our spines hunched over, our fin­gers typ­ing. When our spines ache, we visit chi­ro­prac­tors and phys­io­ther­a­pists.

We take our healthy spines for granted. And very few of us know that in Ethiopia, in north­ern Africa, about 70% of Ethiopi­ans have sco­l­io­sis (ab­nor­mal cur­va­ture of the spine), of­ten with kypho­sis (ex­ces­sive cur­va­ture of the spine) and even kyphosco­l­io­sis. Many are born with these con­di­tions. No chi­ro­prac­tor can as­sist them. Only spe­cial­ists.

Dr Rick Hodes is one such spe­cial­ist. A Jewish Amer­i­can doc­tor liv­ing in Ethiopia, he is the only spinal doc­tor in the coun­try and he has ded­i­cated the last 20 years to help­ing hun­dreds of lo­cal peo­ple stand up­right again. Some of their spinal is­sues are “in­her­ited, some id­io­pathic, some neu­ro­mus­cu­lar such as old po­lio, neu­rofi­bro­mato­sis, mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phies and cere­bral palsy,” says Hodes. Some spinal dis­eases are a di­rect re­sult of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis (TB). Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis is a com­mon disease in Ethiopia, along with malaria, res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions, di­ar­rheal dis­eases and cholera. Very few peo­ple have ac­cess to good san­i­ta­tion, liv­ing in ex­treme poverty. Most of Hodes’ many pa­tients need surgery as soon as pos­si­ble when they come to him. If their se­vere sco­l­io­sis or kypho­sis is not treated, their spines de­te­ri­o­rate even fur­ther. This causes painful chest com­pres­sion and even death.

Last year, Hodes had more than 400 new spinal pa­tients, a record for him. About 76 of these pa­tients were sent to Ghana for surgery at the Foun­da­tion of Orthopaedics and Com­plex Spine (FOCOS). FOCOS works closely with Hodes, who is the med­i­cal di­rec­tor for Ethiopia for the Amer­i­can Jewish Joint Dis­tri­bu­tion Com­mit­tee (JDC).

The JDC is a 102-year-old or­gan­i­sa­tion based in New York City and also hap­pens to be the world’s lead­ing Jewish hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance or­gan­i­sa­tion. Work­ing in more than 70 coun­tries, its mem­bers fo­cus on as­sist­ing mil­lions of vic­tims of poverty and crises. With fund­ing from the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, other gov­ern­ments, in­ter­na­tional NGOs and pri­vate donors, this or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­vides cru­cial sup­port to peo­ple dur­ing even the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges. They pro­vide food and wa­ter, medicine and shel­ter to peo­ple who have suf­fered tsunamis, land-slides, drought and other calami­ties.

Ethiopia is one of the coun­tries im­pacted by se­vere dis­as­ters. The coun­try’s spinal disease sta­tis­tics are be­com­ing a real cri­sis. When two spine sur­geons ar­rived last year to as­sess the work of the Hodes-FOCOSJDC team, they de­duced that at least 50 000 Ethiopi­ans are liv­ing with spinal de­for­mi­ties. Which means that the doc­tors have scratched the sur­face with their 500 surg­eries, or 1% of that num­ber!

Threats and hopes

The sad part is that of the 3 mil­lion births per year in Ethiopia, more ba­bies are be­ing born with. in­her­ited weak­nesses. And the cur­rent cli­mate change and El Nino sce­nar­ios are mak­ing mat­ters worse: by the end

of 2016, the num­ber of peo­ple need­ing food as­sis­tance had risen from 10 mil­lion to 18 mil­lion. Six mil­lion of these are chil­dren.

First, Dr Hodes as­sesses pa­tients with spinal de­for­mi­ties and refers ap­pro­pri­ate pa­tients to FOCOS Ghana for com­plex spine surgery. These brave chil­dren travel to Ghana on their own, with­out friends or fam­ily. FOCOS aims to pro­vide prime orthopaedic care and im­prove qual­ity of life in Ghana, Ethiopia, and other coun­tries. Ghana has very few spe­cial­ist doc­tors. There are only 12 orthopaedics and 56 gen­eral sur­geons for a pop­u­lace of over 20 mil­lion peo­ple. In Ethiopia, one of the most pop­u­lated African na­tions, there are not enough doc­tors and health work­ers to care for the coun­try’s 95 mil­lion peo­ple. Many health staff trained in Ethiopia move over­seas.

Pott’s Disease

In the re­veal­ing book Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders in Ethiopia, au­thor Nyla Jo Jones Hub­bard talks about Pott’s Disease, TB of the spine. He saw an old man and a young girl with hump­backs “caused by in­fil­tra­tion of the ver­te­brae by the TB bacil­lus”. He goes on to note that “In Pott’s disease, para­ple­gia can de­velop due to the pinch­ing of the spinal cord… We all think of TB in the lungs, but it is multi-tal­ented and can at­tack sev­eral body sys­tems”.

Dr Hodes has seen ex­treme cases of Potts Disease too, caused by the tu­ber­cu­lo­sis bac­te­ria. About 25-30% of his spine de­for­mity pa­tients have de­for­mi­ties caused by TB. He ar­rived in Ethiopia in 1984 on a mis­sion to as­sist with famine vic­tims. He re­turned to the coun­try in 1985 to teach at the med­i­cal school un­til 1988. But his work at a mis­sion run by Mother Teresa dur­ing the early 1990s changed his life. This was when he re­alised just how much he wanted to help oth­ers get bet­ter.

Adop­tion and Spine Mend­ing

By then he had joined the JDC. And to­day, he is the proud fa­ther of 5 adopted Ethiopi­ans, who have a new lease on life. He is chang­ing lives - turn­ing curved spines into straight spines, help­ing peo­ple to walk up­right, some for the first time in their lives. Dr Rick Hodes makes things hap­pen.

“Ethiopia is the cap­i­tal of Africa, home of the African Union, mov­ing from poverty to de­vel­op­ment, home to a deep cul­ture and an­cient Chris­tian­ity. Ethiopia is my home, “he says.

Imag­ine not be­ing able to stand up straight? Or to walk prop­erly, let alone climb trees and play­ground jun­gle gyms. Many of the vic­tims are chil­dren, who are born with spinal ab­nor­mal­i­ties due to bac­te­rial in­fec­tions. Chil­dren are tested for tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and doc­tors do all they can to re­duce or pre­vent the spread of the TB.

Chil­dren get a new lease on life

There are many suc­cess sto­ries, heart-

Ethiopia is the cap­i­tal of Africa, home of the African Union, mov­ing from poverty to de­vel­op­ment, home to a deep cul­ture and an­cient Chris­tian­ity. Ethiopia is my home“.

warm­ing tales, where chil­dren get new chances at life, thanks to Hodes and his team:

There is the story about the lit­tle boy who lived on the streets. The au­thor of the book about Rick Hodes, Mar­i­lyn Berger, found this boy one day and saw that he suf­fered spinal disease. She took him in his starv­ing, de­formed, mal­formed state to Hodes, who was able to get him into surgery. This risky op­er­a­tion was a suc­cess and that boy can now stand up­right. The book Berger wrote is called This Is a Soul: The Mis­sion of Rick Hodes and re­lates the story of Rick Hodes’ jour­ney to Addis Ababa. Hodes had the courage to leave res­i­den­tial Amer­ica, fol­low­ing his child­hood dream to help im­pov­er­ished peo­ple. He started his mis­sion in Africa, as­sist­ing famine suf­fer­ers in Ethiopia, then geno­cide vic­tims in Rwanda. He helped Ethiopian Jews to em­i­grate to Is­rael and fi­nally, he set­tled in at the Mother Theresa mis­sion in Addis Ababa. Here he cared for ex­tremely sick chil­dren, even­tu­ally adopt­ing 5 of them.

His first adopted son, De­jene Hodes, had an ex­tremely de­formed spine when Hodes found him at the mis­sion. This poor or­phan had TB of the spine, and was sent to the Texas Scot­tish Rite Hospi­tal for Chil­dren in Dal­las, where his 90-de­gree an­gle spine was made straight. He never knew his real fa­ther, but his new fa­ther has changed his life. He loves sport and even help­ing Hodes to help other child pa­tients in a sim­i­lar predica­ment to his be­fore he was adopted.

Hodes told me this story:

“Less than three weeks ago, I was out in ru­ral Gon­dar (Ethiopia), screen­ing kids, who were chal­lenged by the drought, for mal­nu­tri­tion. That day, three kids showed up, who have cleft lips and palates. I wrote down their con­tact in­for­ma­tion, and said, ‘If we get a cleft team com­ing, I'll let you know.’

“Three days later, I was back in Addis Ababa, and in walked a cleft sur­geon from San Francisco, who wanted to say hi and see if I had any pa­tients for him. I im­me­di­ately picked up my phone, to call the head of the health cen­tre to send me these kids. Prob­a­bly there was no elec­tric­ity in the area, and his phone was switched off. At the end of the day, I still had not reached him. I went into the cor­ner, and said a prayer, ask­ing that this guy would turn on his phone so we could get the kids’ surg­eries done.

“Thirty se­conds later, I got a text mes­sage that his phone had switched on! I trans­ferred $100 to him to cover their bus fare, and the kids ar­rived a few days later. My staff met them at the cen­tral bus sta­tion on a Thurs­day morn­ing, and ad­mit­ted them to the hospi­tal. They had surgery the next day, the fi­nal day the team was here.

They're now out of hospi­tal - the kids are liv­ing with their moms at Mother Teresa's Mis­sion… I'll go to Ghana this Wed­nes­day, and they can re­turn home.” This all hap­pened in mid-Fe­bru­ary this year and it is pretty cer­tain that these chil­dren have a dif­fer­ent take on life after meet­ing such a man.”

Hum­ble yet Pro­fes­sional

Rick Hodes is a hum­ble man and de­scribes his faith like this: “I came from a Re­form fam­ily, which lit can­dles on Fri­day nights, when we re­mem­bered, and went to syn­a­gogue on hol­i­days, and had a strong sense of iden­tity, with­out a heavy dose of re­li­gion.” He re­veals his true spir­i­tu­al­ity in his hu­man­i­tar­ian out­pour­ings of as­sis­tance to ev­ery­one less for­tu­nate than him­self.

Hodes con­sid­ers him­self to be “quite healthy” and he at­tends the gym al­most daily to ex­er­cise. His next dream is to chan­nel these en­er­gies into open­ing a spine cen­tre in Ethiopia, and train­ing lo­cal peo­ple to do their own surg­eries. His fo­cus on the heart and heart con­di­tions will also con­tinue.

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