Humpbacked Children Have A Hero In Ethiopia

Doctor Rick Hodes

Travel to Ethiopia and you may see a heartbreaking but all-too-common sight: children with spines so severely curved that it looks as if they’ve grown humps on their backs. But you may also see a heartwarming sight: children once bent over now standing fully straight, smiling and playing and learning in school. Host Scott Simon talks to Dr. Rick Hodes, who has spent two decades in Ethiopia treating children who suffer from severe spine diseases and often need expensive corrective surgery.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I’m Scott Simon.

Travel to Ethiopia and you might see a heartbreaking sight that’s all-too-common: Children with spines so severely curved, it looks as if they’ve grown humps on their backs. Their condition is the result in most cases of untreated tuberculosis, a disease that has largely been eradicated in the modern world but still rages unchecked in East Africa.

But you may also see a heartwarming sight: children who were once bent over now standing fully straight, smiling, playing, learning in school. They’re some of the patients of Dr. Rick Hodes, an American who’s dedicated the last 20 years to practicing medicine in a nation where a doctor can be a rare sight.

Some are also his children. Dr. Hodes has adopted or fostered nearly 20 sick and orphaned Ethiopian children. His story was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Making the Crooked Straight,” and a book, “This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes,” by Marilyn Berger.

Dr. Hodes has been touring United States in recent weeks. He joins us from the studios of member station WXXI in Rochester, New York.

Doctor, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. RICK HODES (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee): Thanks very much.

SIMON: So what’s a nice Jewish doctor from Long Island doing in Ethiopia?

Dr. HODES: What happened was, back in 1999 I met these two boys with TB of the spine. One of them had a 90 degree angle. One of them had a 120 degree angle. I really wanted to help them and I couldn’t get them free surgery. So I ended up adopting them and getting them surgery that way.

SIMON: As your sons.

Dr. HODES: My sons, yes.

SIMON: Ethiopia has such accomplished people in so many different areas. Why is tuberculosis so rampant?

Dr. HODES: Well, part it has to do with the lack of primary medical care and the lack of TB treatment in the countryside. Part of it has to do with the few number of doctors. And part of it just has to do with the nature of TB in Africa, I think, that it’s just a very prevalent disease.

Now, why does TB go to the spine in Africans? We don’t know that, but for example, here in United States you really don’t see TB of the spine. In Ethiopia I’m following well over a hundred of these kids.

SIMON: Who are some of the people that stay with you the most?

Dr. HODES: There’s a girl name Asmara(ph). Asmara was an abandoned orphan who was living in Gondar Medical College. And I was walking across the grounds of Gondar Medical College one day, one of the docs said: Hey, Rick, you like these TB cases. Can I show one?

So I went and I saw her and she was living in this bed for three years because at the age of nine she had been abandoned there, and she had nowhere else to go. She had a 90 degree angle in her back. At this point she was 12 years old, she hadn’t started menstruating yet, she hadn’t started her growth spurt. This is the perfect time to intervene because after this her spine would get a lot worse and she would become paralyzed.

So I ended up moving her to Addis Ababa, finishing her TB treatment. And then I sent her off to Ghana. Turns out that one of the best spine surgeons in the world is a guy named Dr. Boachie. And Dr. Boachie operated on Asmara. She now has a pretty straight back and now she has a future.

You know, when I first met her, I said to her: What do you want to do with your life? She said I want to be a housemaid. Now she wants to be a doctor.

SIMON: I gather your house has been called the Chabad of Ethiopia, a kind of place of worship on Friday nights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HODES: Well, Jewish people and non-Jewish people converge on my house on Friday nights and we have big Shabbos dinners, Sabbath dinners. We stand in a circle and holds hands. We wear funny hats. And we start off by singing “If I Had a Hammer.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HODES: And that sort of – it’s not a traditional Jewish song but I’m sure Pete Seeger would approve, and somehow it sets the tone for the evening.

SIMON: Dr. Rick Hodes, he’s medical director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. And he joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester.

Dr. Hodes, good luck to you. So nice talking to you.

Dr. HODES: Thank you.