Section: archive

Rick Hodes Inspires Students with Stories of Ethiopia

By Kip Pesses

Internal medicine specialist Dr. Rick Hodes spoke at Kenyon on Monday, Oct. 17 about his 20 years in Ethiopia treating patients with ailments including rheumatic and congenital heart disease, tuberculosis and cancer.

As the medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Hodes has played an important role in treating many patients who would have otherwise received no care.

In his lecture in Higley Auditorium, “Extreme Medicine: 20+ Years as a Doctor in Africa,” Hodes talked about pursuing his medical career in Ethiopia, as well as the patients who have shaped the course of his career and life. He stressed his interest in pursuing nontraditional routes in medicine.

After working abroad in Bangladesh and India during medical school, Hodes discovered his passion for international medicine. He travelled to Ethiopia to give aid during the 1984 famine and went again to the country on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach medicine. His current career, however, did not truly begin until a friend contacted him and asked him to treat a sick child.

The child was dying of aetrial fibrillation, chronic active hepatitis B and congestive heart failure, and no one knew how to treat him.

One of Dr. Jules L. Dienstag’s articles in The New England Journal of Medicine finally led Hodes to success. After six months and an extended stay in Hodes’ home, the child began to recover.

Following this success, more and more patients came to Hodes for treatment. He saw two boys, both dying from Pott’s disease, a severe distortion of the spine. Unable to find the funding to get the children to surgery, Hodes eventually adopted them so they could benefit from his health insurance. In talking about the difficult decision he faced in adopting these children without preparation, Hodes quoted Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

“I sort of see my role in the world as helping those that no one else is helping,” Hodes said. Building on his initial triumphs, Hodes has treated impoverished patients suffering from a wide range of illnesses, including testicular cancer, Hodgkins lymphoma and ameloblastoma.

One of the most important factors Hodes touched upon in his talk was the issue of funds. Internationally, he successfully treats patients for much less than similar treatments cost in the U.S.

Recently, his fundraising drummed up $42,000, more than enough money to treat 11 patients for heart surgery in India. “Costs in America for surgery … I don’t know, I’m not a surgeon, but I think there’s a lot of duplication. I think [in America] we tend to over-treat,” Hodes said. “It is not necessary to exploit people.”

Hodes’ presentation had an impact on several students. “I want to help people, so it was a great opportunity to see someone unconventional who’s doing that,” Rowan Kurtz ’13 said.

“It was very applicable,” Whitney Simon ’15 said. “Even though I’m not interested in medicine necessarily, it was very interesting.”

“I get discouraged all the time,” Hodes said. “But I just keep on going. … It’s not easy.”

Following his talk on medicine Monday evening, Hodes presented a brief talk on Ethiopian Jewry in Peirce Lounge over Common Hour on Tuesday.

Covering the topic of the genesis of Ethiopian Jews, Hodes discussed his role in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, efforts to evacuate Jews from Ethiopia and Sudan into Israel. Hodes recounted the story of a 110-year-old woman who rode for eight days on the back of a donkey to meet Hodes and his team. “I couldn’t ride for eight hours,” he said.

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