Dr. Rick Hodes currently serves as the Medical Director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an NGO that provides humanitarian aid to Jews around the world.

By Sarah Asch (The Middlebury Campus) |

When Dr. Rick Hodes ’75 [of Middlebury College] went to Ethiopia in 1985 to volunteer, he never dreamed he would spend the next 30 years of his life practicing medicine abroad. Yet he has spent the last three decades working in Ethiopia, pioneering new practices to help patients receive life-changing health care. Hodes returned to the College recently to help advise the global health program, and on Wednesday, May 4, presented a lecture entitled “Extreme Medicine: Practicing in Africa for 28 Years,” a talk about his experience working as a doctor overseas.

“There’s 50,000 people who need spine surgery for deformities in Ethiopia and I’ve done 500 surgeries,” Hodes said about his medical work abroad. “So that means that we’ve done one percent of the surgeries that need to be done. It’s very humbling to know how hard we’ve been working and we just never thought that we’d ever complete 500 surgeries, but now we’re one percent done. So what does that mean? It means I have to train a lot of people.”

Dr. Rick Hodes currently serves as the Medical Director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an NGO that provides humanitarian aid to Jews around the world. In addition, he runs a free clinic and volunteers at Mother Theresa’s Mission and specializes in treating heart disease, spinal disease and cancer.

Among his projects is a program to help spinal patients receive corrective surgery. According to Hodes many Ethiopians suffer from spinal problems, in part due to tuberculosis, which can cause the spine to form a z-shape. Hodes first saw this kind of spinal deformity in two orphan boys in 1999. He could not get them affordable surgery, so he adopted them.

“I got this brilliant idea that I would adopt them, add them to my health insurance and bring them down to Dallas, Texas and get them surgery that way,” he said. In total, Hodes has adopted five male orphans needing surgery.

Until he adopted his first two children, Hodes was not aware of the spinal problems prevalent in Ethiopia. “Nobody had any idea there was a spine problem in Ethiopia,” he said. “Then more and more patients kept on coming and so I started treating them. So then we started this program in 2006. In 2006 we got 20 patients; last year I got 445 new patients.”

Dr. Rick Hodes says that the program is still growing rapidly and is in the process of training Ethiopian surgeons so fewer patients will have to go abroad for surgery. Training doctors in Ethiopia will make the surgery more accessible and help reduce costs.

Hodes said that the best part of his job is saving lives by getting people the surgeries they need.

“When you see kids go to Ghana completely crooked and go through traction and surgery and come on back six months later on the path to healing, you’ve completely changed their lives.”

The most difficult part, however, is its demanding nature.

“It’s not occasional cases. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. [The hardest part] is the very high volume. It’s the intensity and the suffering that I’m dealing with all the time,” Hodes said.

In order to help cope with the high intensity, Hodes takes regular breaks. “I try to duck out periodically because when I’m there I have to work very hard,” he said. “Every month or six weeks, I just try to pop out somewhere where I can get a cheap airfare for four or five days and just relax.”

Dr. Rick Hodes also takes comfort in his faith. He identifies as a Modern Orthodox Jew and religion is a big part of his life, though he collaborates with a variety of religious organizations.

Hodes discussed the role religion plays in his work. He gave the example of a Muslim woman who needed a tumor removed. Hodes ran into a doctor who specialized in the field at a synagogue in Minnesota.

“Because of that chance meeting I ended up bringing this woman to Minneapolis, Minnesota,” he said. “So you have a Muslim orphan who was raised in a Catholic orphanage getting free surgery at St. Joseph’s hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota by a Jewish doctor. It’s a very nice story about the whole world working together.”

Dr. Rick Hodes came to the College to attend a retreat with faculty, staff and fellow alumni to discuss the global health program. Hodes believes the best way to learn about the field is from experience. “I want to see what other people have to say [at the retreat] but basically my philosophy is that people have to get their hands dirty,” he said. “They have to go into the field and see what it’s like.”

In addition to advising the global health program, Hodes has wisdom to share with students. When he graduated from the College with a degree in geography he had no idea what to do next, so he hitchhiked to Alaska before deciding on medical school. Hodes believes students should take time off before their next step. “If you haven’t had a year off yet then take a year off and look around and think about other things,” Hodes said. “When you get older and you’re looking back, nobody ever says, ‘I’m really happy I went straight through.’”

Dr. Rick Hodes hopes his story will inspire students to spend their lives helping others. “I think there’s great fulfillment in serving other people and dedicating your life to a cause bigger than yourself,” he said. “When you have human lives depending on you day after day it really changes you and it makes you somehow a better person.”

Source: The Middlebury Campus
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