By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Renowned physician Dr. Rick Hodes, an Orthodox Jew, has easily saved thousands of lives during his many years in Ethiopia.
Dr. Hodes was in Dallas last week to raise money for the surgery necessary to prevent his Ethiopian patients from suffering further curvature, chest compression and even early death from cases of severe scoliosis or kyphosis (extreme rounding of the back) due to tuberculosis or birth defects.
But such surgery doesn’t come cheap. Each one costs as much as $18,000 — including transportation, the surgery and post-operation care.
Dr. Rick Hodes, originally from Syosset, Long Island, is the medical director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and has been a physician protecting the health of the 70,000 Ethiopians immigrating to Israel over the years.
“That’s 1 percent of Israel,” Dr. Hodes said.
Hodes was a guest of John and Kathy Ward while in Dallas. He started his local fundraising effort at the Rotary Club of Dallas Wednesday, Oct. 21 and the DFW World Affairs Council on Oct. 22.
“I have a whole history with Dallas,” the physician explained during a Friday, Oct. 23 phone interview. “I came here with my son Dejene, who graduated from Yavneh Academy. He’s an abandoned orphan I adopted in Ethiopia. He’s with me here with two spine patients who are going to be operated on at the Medical Center of Plano next week.”
Hodes’ legendary medical accomplishments have been cited in the TJP, in other news reports, in books and on film.
Michael Geller, director of Communications & Media Relations for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), made a point of heralding Dr. Hodes’ visit.
“His work is supported by numerous Jewish philanthropists and JDC board members in Dallas,” Geller said in an email.
After the doctor finished his Dallas visit and departed for New York, his son reported the local fundraising efforts had thus far been met with great enthusiasm.
“They always love to hear him speak,” Dejene Hodes said. “I don’t know how much money has been raised right now but I know events went well.”
Dejene acknowledged his father has been described as an “angel” by many grateful patients.
Some rabbis have even gone as far as to describe Dr. Hodes as one of the Lamed-Vavniks or the Tzadikim Nistarim, his son said.
Mystical Hassidic Judaism, as well as other segments of Judaism, holds that at all times in history there are 36 righteous people who wander the earth unknown to everyone else, including one another.
“A few rabbis came to me and said, ‘You know your dad is one of the 36.’ The world kind of enlivens and functions because of them,” Dejene Hodes said.
These 36 are said to be critical to the existence of humanity, because the anger of Almighty God is held back from the earth as long as they exist.
Dejene said he can understand why the rabbis think so highly of his father: What he has accomplished is nothing short of dazzling.
“The stuff he does is just amazing – there is no other way to say it,” Dejene said.
The 21-year-old Dejene owes quite a bit to his father. He suffered from tuberculosis of the spine when younger and his father arranged for him to have corrective surgery at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in 2002. He was 8 at the time.
After Dejene graduated from Yavneh, he went to Israel for a year to take advantage of a gap year program. He then returned to the States for a year of engineering at a small school in Boston but elected to pursue business in Ethiopia.
“At the end of the day I want my home to be in Ethiopia,” he said. “But I work for my father when he needs me to do something. His work is more important than any business.”
Dr. Hodes currently is senior consultant at a Catholic mission helping those who are sick and destitute. He treats those with cancer as well as spine disease — both TB and scoliosis — and heart disease — both rheumatic and congenital. He has also worked with refugees in Zaire, Rwanda, Somalia, Albania and Tanzania.
“I’m an observant Jew and we are helping some of the poorest, most vulnerable people on the planet,” Dr. Hodes said. We are helping them get good health care and turning their lives around. That is a wonderful thing.”
Dr. Hodes has overseen the medical care for tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, also for cases of cancer, heart disease, and spinal conditions.
Michael Geller said as part of JDC’s nonsectarian work in Ethiopia, Hodes is an attending physician at Mother Teresa’s Mission.
Because Dr. Hodes works with those suffering from heart disease, diseases of the spine, and cancer, “he manages programs which ensure Ethiopians receive vital heart and spine surgeries in Ghana and India,” Geller said.
He is a graduate of Middlebury College and University of Rochester Medical School, and was trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins.
Hodes first went to Ethiopia as a relief worker during the 1984 famine. He returned there on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach internal medicine, and in 1990 was hired by the JDC.
In 1991, Dr. Hodes actively contributed to Operation Solomon — which helped the Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel.
In 2001 Hodes adopted two Ethiopian children, one of them Dejene Hodes. He put both on his insurance plan so they could be treated for spinal tuberculosis in the United States. Dr. Hodes has adopted five children from Ethiopia.
He has been awarded “Mastership,” and the Rosenthal Award for “creative practice of medicine” by the American College of Physicians.
There have been movies and books documenting his work:
- The HBO documentary, Making the Crooked Straight
- The Marilyn Berger book, This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes
- Bewoket: By the Will of God, the story of a courageous young boy finding Dr. Rick Hodes and getting a second chance at life
In 2007, he became a finalist for CNN Heroes, a program that highlights ordinary people for their extraordinary achievements.
Dr. Hodes, who is in internal medicine, is not a surgeon — but he works with surgeons. He said the best spine surgeons in the world are in Ghana, so that’s where he sends his patients.
“When our spine program started in 2006 we had 20 new spine patents,” he said. “By 2014 we had 400 new spine patients. Today, I have 360. That’s a lot of patients.”