I initially came to Ethiopia to teach at the medical school for one year right out of my internal medicine training in Baltimore in 1985. That one year turned into two and a half. I came back for six weeks in late 1990 to work for JDC, and I’ve been here ever since — almost 30 years now.
In 1999, I was volunteering at Mother Teresa’s mission, just helping the nuns and taking care of sick people, when I met two abandoned orphans with tuberculosis of the spine. One of them had a 90-degree angle in his back, and one of them had a 120-degree angle in his back. I knew if they didn’t get surgery, they’d become paralyzed and probably die, so I wanted to help them. I couldn’t get them free surgery, but I got this idea that I would adopt them, add them to my health insurance, and get them surgery in the United States.
Now the problem is when you adopt an abandoned orphan, they become yours for life. On the one hand, I knew I could get them free surgery by doing this. 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?” and a few days later, it’s as if G-d sent me this fax. I got this message in my brain 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, so we 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 our doors.
Fourteen years later, we see patients here in the basement of a city hospital five afternoons a week, Tuesday to Saturday. We see anyone who walks in the door the same day they come even if it’s only for a second to register them, see what their problem is, and give them an appointment for later on in the week. I will not turn anyone away. I will see everybody on the same day they come.
If they don’t have money for bus fare, we will give the money for bus 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 two later, they’re walking.
In America, there’s 320 million people, and there’s thousands of doctors 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 all languages — Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo. Most of my patients are very poor. Most of my patients come from the bottom of Ethiopian society. Many of them live in mud houses that have mud walls. They may have a grass roof. They may have an aluminum roof. Some of them have electricity, and some of them don’t have electricity.
This is not a Jewish project at all in the sense that my patients are 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 minds can help heal the whole world and create goodwill for Jewish people, for Israel, and create a wonderful community of patients with what we’re doing.
I want to open the eyes of Jewish communities around the world to what we’re doing, our unique work here in Ethiopia, because we’re turning people’s lives around. We are saving lives who would otherwise die.
What attracted JDC to Ethiopia initially was helping the Jewish population, but it’s Jewish values that are helping us to treat everybody here and to help them in a variety of ways. I think it’s really our Jewish souls that are keeping us here.
Dr. Rick Hodes is JDC’s medical director in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.