Dr Rick Hodes Ethiopian spine doctor impacting lives

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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 and climb and hide. To play cricket and rugby and 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. For 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 organization based in New York City and also happens to be the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. 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 more.

Ethiopia is right up there. 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-FOCOS-JDC 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!

“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. “

Threats and hopes
The sad part is that there are at least 3 million births per year in Ethiopia, meaning 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 alone, 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 yet 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 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-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 dreams 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 came to rest 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 has seen all of this and more. He 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 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 – 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.

This article was written by Janis Theron.

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Born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, Miriro is a seasoned publishing editor and writer, having worked with leading brands in investment, business leadership and entrepreneurship. Passionate about Africa’s development, Miriro is also a dynamic marketing consultant with 10 years experience working with startups and large multinational corporations. With a heart for travel, Miriro spends her time discovering the nooks of crannies of Africa’s hidden gems, taking the roads less travelled, meeting the beautiful people and enjoying their food and culture. She enjoys tackling complex strategic challenges in the passion-to-entrepreneurship pipeline, particularly focused on the implications of 4th Industrial Revolution and workforce automation on Africa's travel and tourism industry. Miriro is currently the Managing Editor of Nomad Africa magazine.

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