“Judaism at its Best”: JDC in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, there are 105 million people. Rick Hodes is the only spine doctor for the entire population.

By Dr. Rick Hodes - JDC Medical Director, Ethiopia | March 6, 2020

I initially came to Ethiopia to teach at the medical school forone year right out of my internal medicine training in Baltimore in 1985. Thatone year turned into two and a half. I came back for six weeks in late 1990 towork for JDC, and I’ve been here ever since — almost 30 years now.

In 1999, I was volunteering at Mother Teresa’s mission, justhelping the nuns and taking care of sick people, when I met two abandonedorphans with tuberculosis of the spine. One of them had a 90-degree angle inhis back, and one of them had a 120-degree angle in his back. I knew if theydidn’t get surgery, they’d become paralyzed and probably die, so I wanted tohelp them. I couldn’t get them free surgery, but I got this idea that I wouldadopt them, add them to my health insurance, and get them surgery in the UnitedStates.

Now the problem is when you adopt an abandoned orphan, they becomeyours for life. On the one hand, I knew I could get them free surgery by doingthis. On the other hand, we would have to spend the rest of our lives together.I didn’t know whether I wanted that much permanence.

I basically said to the Almighty, “What do you want me to do?” anda few days later, it’s as if G-d sent me this fax. I got this message in mybrain that said, “The Almighty is offering you a chance to help these boys.Don’t say no.”

Now serial adoption’s probably not the answer to spine disease, sowe started our spine program in 2006. We were based at Mother Teresa’s mission,and we took all comers. We’ve helped more than 1,000 people since we opened ourdoors.

Fourteen years later, we see patients here in the basement of acity hospital five afternoons a week, Tuesday to Saturday. We see anyone whowalks in the door the same day they come even if it’s only for a second toregister them, see what their problem is, and give them an appointment forlater on in the week. I will not turn anyone away. I will see everybody on thesame day they come.

If they don’t have money for bus fare, we will give the money forbus fare. If they don’t have a place to stay, we’ll arrange a place to stay.Every year, we have patients who come into us paralyzed and, a year or twolater, they’re walking.

In America, there’s 320 million people, and there’s thousands ofdoctors who are doing spine surgery. In Ethiopia, there’s 105 million people.I’m the only spine doctor for the entire population.

This is Judaism at its best, reaching out, showing how Jewish expertise and Jewish hearts and Jewish minds can help heal the whole world.

We really represent the entire country of Ethiopia. We speak alllanguages — Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo. Most of my patients are very poor. Mostof my patients come from the bottom of Ethiopian society. Many of them live inmud houses that have mud walls. They may have a grass roof. They may have analuminum roof. Some of them have electricity, and some of them don’t haveelectricity.

This is not a Jewish project at all in the sense that my patientsare all Christians and Muslims. On the other hand, this is Judaism at its best,reaching out, showing how Jewish expertise and Jewish hearts and Jewish mindscan help heal the whole world and create goodwill for Jewish people, forIsrael, and create a wonderful community of patients with what we’re doing.

I want to open the eyes of Jewish communities around the world towhat we’re doing, our unique work here in Ethiopia, because we’re turningpeople’s lives around. We are saving lives who would otherwise die.

What attracted JDC to Ethiopia initially was helping the Jewishpopulation, but it’s Jewish values that are helping us to treat everybody hereand to help them in a variety of ways. I think it’s really our Jewish soulsthat are keeping us here.

Dr. Rick Hodes is JDC’s medical director inAddis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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