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Jewish American doctor is an 'angel' in Ethiopia

Jaynie Schultz. / Jaynie Schultz.

Dr. Rick Hodes embraces Semegnew Hodes at his college graduation from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., on May 9, 2013.

Semegnew Molla Hodes was in constant pain, and his twisted back slowed his breathing. Still, he was determined to reach Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, approximately 200 miles from his rural village. He had embarked on this long walk, expecting to hitch occasional rides, because poverty and lack of medical care in his village offered no hope.

“I followed my feet and hoped they would take me there,” the soft-spoken young man said in a recent phone interview.

He was 12 years old when, destitute and crippled, he found his way to the Mother Teresa Center in Addis Ababa. Now, 12 years later and half a world away, that desperate boy has become a man -- and the owner of a degree in chemistry from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. as of his graduation on May 9. 

Semegnew owes the remarkable path his life has taken to Dr. Rick Hodes, 60, an American doctor who has lived and worked in Ethiopia since 1990.

Hodes is medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Joint Distribution Committee, founded in 1914, is a Jewish humanitarian assistance organization that provides needed services in more than 70 countries. Hodes is based in Ethiopia, but responds to other international humanitarian crises such as Rwanda.

Hodes' medical team served an estimated 70,000 so-called “Felas Mora” Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry before they emigrated to Israel. Hodes also serves the predominantly Orthodox Christian Ethiopian population.

“If it wasn’t for him I would be dead today,” said Semegnew, an Orthodox Christian. “He’s like a savior, an angel.”

Semegnew said Hodes has saved the lives of hundreds of other children.

Richard Lord / JDC

Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, examines a young patient at the Blue Nile Medical Clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

When Semegnew arrived at the Mother Teresa Center, he lived among the seriously ill and the dying. His pain, plus the misery that surrounded him, were overwhelming. He says he spent most days in tears, crying and refusing to eat.

Then Hodes entered Semegnew’s life. The diagnosis was spinal tuberculosis, a terrible disease that can compromise the spine and lead to an agonizing death. Hodes arranged for Semegnew to have life-saving back surgery in Dallas. Semegnew’s life brightened.

Hodes has sent hundreds of other Ethiopian boys and girls to the United States and Ghana for similar surgery. (The Ghana connection is a result of Hodes’ work with a Ghanaian spinal surgeon who works in New York, but also performs surgeries in his home country).

Azmera, a 17-year-old girl who only gave her first name, lived in grinding poverty with major health problems, until she had back surgery in Ghana.   

“The world looked dark, regardless of the time of day,” Azmera said, adding that in addition to her back issues, she had vision problems, too. “He brought me glasses, and now the world is light.” 

Ethiopia’s 93 million people are among the poorest in the world, with a per capita GDP of just $1,200.

Access to medical care is limited – there are just two doctors for every 100,000 people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Access to clean water is limited, making disease widespread. The JDC digs wells for potable water, builds primary schools and provides university scholarships for women. 

Hodes oversees and delivers comprehensive medical services, including immunization, nutritional support, family planning, and community health. His clinic is outside the chapel at the Mother Teresa Center.

Jdc/ Richard Lord / JDC/ Richard Lord

Dr. Rick Hodes talks with girl at the Blue Nile Medical Clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“Getting free medical care in a Catholic hospital by a Jewish doctor is like the whole world coming together,” Hodes said in a recent interview. “It’s the way the world should work.”

American doctors, like orthopedic spinal surgeon Dr. Kenneth Paonessa of Norwich, Conn., have worked with Hodes as volunteers. Paonessa said Hodes dedicates his life to the children of Ethiopia and has no selfish goals.

“He treats everyone with the same dignity, the leper, or the sick child,” said Paonessa, noting that the Ethiopian people flock to Hodes wherever he goes.

“We went into a store in a northern village and 12 people were lined up outside waiting to ask him questions,” said Paonessa. “They all know him as ‘Dr. Rick.’ He must have touched the lives of thousands of Africans.”

Those who’ve helped Hodes in his mission find it’s brought them rewards they never imagined.

“I learned that my heart was bigger than I thought it was,” said Jaynie Schulz. A Dallas mother of four, Schulz housed and cared for Semegnew and his younger brother, Dejean, for six months when they had their surgeries.

Hodes attended Semegnew’s graduation from college on May 9.

“It was like winning the Powerball lottery,” Hodes said. “I can’t describe how happy and proud I am.”

The pride was not just for what Hodes did as a doctor. Semegnew is one of five Ethiopian boys Hodes has adopted to help them with their ongoing health problems and to attain higher education. Semegnew plans to return to Ethiopia to help his father heal the sick and save more lives. It’s a Herculean challenge.

After attending Semegnew’s graduation, Hodes gave the commencement address at Brandeis University. During his speech he recited a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible."