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Profile Jewish M.d. in Ethiopia Moonlights at Mother Teresa’s Mission Clinic

November 3, 2006
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The door to Mother Teresa’s Mission in Addis Ababa cracks open and a nun pokes her head out. When she sees the doctor, her face breaks into a broad smile and she swings the door wide open. “Come in, come in,” she beckons, grabbing Rick Hodes’ hand.

Inside, the nun and the doctor — an Orthodox Jew originally from Long Island, N.Y. — quickly are overwhelmed by the clinic’s masses of sick and dying.

Every three paces, Hodes is stopped by another patient. They come to him limping, clutching their bellies, hobbling on elephantine legs rendered virtually useless by cancerous growths or mysterious tumors.

Hodes, 53, is the only doctor most of these people will ever see. As the lone Western-trained physician to conduct regular rounds here, Hodes represents the best hope at this palliative-care clinic for Ethiopia’s neglected legions of malaria patients, cancer victims, AIDS orphans and tuberculosis sufferers.

Without X-rays, lab tests or MRIs, Hodes does what he can, making diagnoses on the fly, recommending medication and moving from patient to patient with an urgency that bespeaks his mission.

Often he pays out of his own pocket to send the more hopeful cases for tests or treatment at private hospitals.

“It doesn’t matter what religion he is; he is doing this for humanity,” says Monica Thonen-Bartet, a Maltese volunteer at the mission. “This is the most beautiful man I have ever seen.”

This is not Hodes’ day job: As medical director for Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hodes is responsible for the medical welfare of some 10,000 Ethiopians known as Falash Mura.

The Falash Mura live in shantytowns in the Ethiopian cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar while they wait for permission to emigrate to Israel, and the JDC provides them with medical care at a series of private clinics, where Hodes has implemented Western-style vaccination programs and preventative medical care, with great success.

Hodes’ real passion, however, seems to be caring for the severely ill at Mother Theresa’s Mission. He does not get paid for this work.

The fortunate ones at the mission get drugs or treatment Hodes obtains by convincing colleagues, drug companies and hospitals in the United States to donate portions of their stocks — or their time — to some of Africa’s poor.

“I see my role at that place as taking care of people who have no one else to take care of them,” Hodes told JTA in a recent follow-up interview in Jerusalem.

The luckiest ones get taken to Hodes’ house, which has become a foster home for some of the doctor’s erstwhile patients. Ranging in age from 10 to their mid-20s, the boys are nursed back to health in his living room, in private hospitals in Ethiopia and, when possible, at medical facilities in the United States.

At last count, Hodes had more than a dozen youths living in his home, and he has placed three more at boarding schools in Ohio and a cancer clinic in Washington. Hodes picked most of them up at the mission, where they had diseases ranging from polio to bone cancer.

Many were abandoned by their families; some were orphans. Mostly healthy now, these boys no longer are Hodes’ patients; they’re his children. Hodes has paid for the boys’ private schooling in Addis Ababa and has officially adopted five of them.

There are no girls; Hodes says having orphaned teenage girls and boys under the same roof would be a recipe for trouble.

Though he’s a religiously observant Jew, Hodes does not impose his religion on the children. Most are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. There is also one Muslim and a Jew.

He does keep the household kosher, and on Shabbat eve, Hodes’ kids don head coverings, join hands and sing Woody Guthrie’s “If I had a Hammer,” followed by the more traditional “Shalom Aleichem” prayer.

Hodes then recites kiddush, makes the blessing over bread and has the kids serve soup while they banter with him and an ever-changing assemblage of guests in a mixture of Amharic and English.

Hodes’ kids unfailingly lobby guests to help find a wife for him. He dates when he can during visits to Israel and New York, but it’s not easy finding a woman willing to marry this most unorthodox single father.

Instead of going to shul on Saturday mornings — there’s no real synagogue in Addis Ababa — Hodes climbs into his jeep and drives to Mother Theresa’s to see patients. This is his service of the Lord.

Educated at the University of Rochester Medical School and trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, Hodes says he always was interested in becoming a pioneering doctor.

“When I was in junior high school, the stuff I would read was about doctors in weird places. These were my heroes,” he told JTA.

Hodes spent time working in Alaska, Bangladesh, India and Sudan before going to Ethiopia in 1985 on a Fulbright professorship. He returned to Addis Ababa several years later for a six-week stint in 1990. Six weeks quickly turned into six months and, now, 16 years.

With all his medical experience in Africa, Dr. Rick — as he is affectionately called here — has developed some unusual areas of medical expertise. Well-versed in treating common African diseases like malaria, trachoma and tuberculosis, Hodes also has developed special expertise treating ailments rarely seen in Western countries, such as spinal tuberculosis, osteogenesis imperfecta — a brittle-bone disease that causes deformities from repeatedly broken bones — and new cases of rheumatic heart disease. Lately he has been focusing on pediatric oncology, where Hodes believes western drugs can make a big difference saving lives.

“From a medical standpoint, Rick is pretty extraordinary in that he is forced to provide expert, consultant-level care where there are no expert consultants because he’s the only guy who knows what he’s doing,” said Dr. Allen Dollar, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Dollar met Hodes on a trip to Ethiopia several years ago, and the two have kept in touch.

“I don’t know that I’ve known another individual in my whole lifetime who has had as much of an impact from a medical standpoint on other people, where there’s nobody else to fill the gap,” Dollar said.

One night not too long ago, Hodes returned home late and checked in with his newest patient, a 12-year-old with cancer named Temesgen who was getting chemotherapy on the living room sofa.

The youth vomited shortly after Hodes woke him up to administer his chemo, and the doctor peered into the soiled tin bowl to see whether he had regurgitated his pills. He peppered one of his older children with questions about what Temesgen had eaten that day. It was nearly midnight, but Hodes was still working.

Hodes says he doesn’t see this as work: It’s simply his life.

“I feel like my role on the planet has to do with caring about people nobody else cares about,” Hodes said. “My work week is so long I sort of forget what it’s like not to do this stuff.”

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