Saving Lives with Unconditional Love

By: Rebecca Arno Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Community Unconditional Love

A boy jumps into a swimming pool, arms akimbo. As he emerges from the water, his smile dazzles. He scrambles out and stands up tall. He can’t wait to do it again.

Mere months before, this same boy walked into the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He walked slowly, was lethargic, and obviously in pain. "They say you can fix my back," he said in English to a man with a stethoscope around his neck and a colorful hat perched on his head. The boy had come to the right place. From his small office in the Ethiopian orphanage, Dr. Rick Hodes had cured hundreds of children’s backs, children who were victims of a disease all too common in Ethiopia—spinal tuberculosis.

But this time, the doctor would identify another problem. While the boy, whose name was Akewak, had a small lump on his back, he also had a scar across his shoulder blade, evidence of heart surgery. Dr. Rick listened to his heart and could tell that Akewak was in danger. "I sent his cardiac echo test to Denver for confirmation of my diagnosis. That $30 test saved this boy's life," he recalls.

This was not the first life that Dr. Rick had saved. In 1985, he went to Ethiopia to teach in the medical school; in 1990, he returned with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to help with Operation Solomon, the airlift of more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the midst of civil war. The JDC is considered by some to be the "Red Cross of the Jewish World," and has been working for 97 years to provide humanitarian assistance to Jews and non-Jews in crisis. Twenty years later, Dr. Rick still serves as JDC Medical Director in Ethiopia, having saved thousands of lives and given care to untold numbers of people in need. He plans to live out his life in his adopted country.

What Dr. Rick found that day when he examined Akewak was a congenital heart defect that could be repaired, if treated soon enough, and if operated on by the right surgeon. But, Akewak also had a spinal defect. Treating both of these ailments would take money and a network of support for the boy, before and after the surgery, in a place far from Addis Ababa. Thanks to the JDC, The Children’s Hospital of Denver, and Dr. Steve Berman, Dr. Rick found the community that Akewak needed.

A generous Denver family opened their home to Akewak. After his surgeries, they helped him recover and gave him the chance to explore the possibilities offered by his new healthy body. He jumped on a trampoline, went swimming, and even tried indoor skydiving. Eventually, Akewak returned home to Ethiopia a changed boy. His parents said, "You’ve given us back a new son." Today, he goes to school and plays soccer with his big brother. He will live and learn and build a life, all because of Dr. Rick Hodes.

Because of stories like this, some call Dr. Rick "the modern day Mother Teresa." He could easily have lived the life expected of a Long Island-born doctor, trained at Johns Hopkins—in an upscale neighborhood and played golf. Instead he spends his days helping the poorest of the poor, treating spinal tuberculosis, scoliosis, heart disease, and cancer, on the dusty streets of Ethiopia, a country where UNICEF estimates there are five million orphans. Instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the need, Dr. Rick simply treats the children who come into his clinic. He treats them with care and love, first taking their pictures to attach to their files, so that they never become just words on a page, numbers on a medical test, or shadows in an x-ray. Jewish writings state that saving one life is like saving an entire world, and Dr. Rick lives according to this principle, as the lines continually blur between his professional and personal life. In fact, several years ago, when he wasn’t able to find donations to support surgery for two boys with severe spinal deformities, he adopted those boys as his sons. Dr. Rick has now adopted five boys, and about twenty other children live under his care in three homes in Addis Ababa. Some of his sons study in different high schools and colleges in the United States.

Dr. Rick’s work has not gone unnoticed. Author Marilyn Berger wrote of Dr. Rick in her book This is a Soul: The Mission of Doctor Rick Hodes (Harper Collins, 2010), and HBO featured his life in the 2010 documentary Making the Crooked Straight. Berger’s book described how her encounters with Dr. Rick not only inspired her, but changed her life forever by introducing her to a boy named Danny. After a day spent in Dr. Rick’s clinic, she found Danny crouched in front of a bakery on the streets of Addis Ababa, "his tiny right hand cupped skyward to catch the occasional coin that came his way." She immediately noticed that he had the same curved back she’d been seeing in Dr. Rick’s clinic. Dr. Rick examined Danny, diagnosed him, adopted him, and eventually sent him abroad for corrective surgery. On a later visit, Berger invited Danny to live with her in New York—her first and only child. This is just one example of the small miracles that seem to be commonplace in the world of Dr. Rick Hodes.

When Dr. Rick is not at work in his clinic, taking care of his adopted sons, or sending e-mails of medical files to hospitals in the United States, India, and Ghana where life-saving surgeries are performed for his patients, he does what he can to raise the money needed to fund these surgeries.

Brent Weaver, a Denver entrepreneur and co-owner of the company Hot Press Web, has seen Dr. Rick at work in Addis Ababa. "He looks at money differently than the rest of us do. To him, $10,000 is a surgery, $600 is a set of medical tests, and $18 provides monthly transportation for patients who live in remote villages and need to come into Addis for treatment." Weaver was part of a group in Denver that recently worked with the JDC to host a fundraising dinner for Dr. Rick called "A Dinner of Unconditional Love."

The mastermind behind the dinner was Noel Cunningham, owner of Strings Restaurant. "There’s nothing like a Jewish doctor in a Catholic orphanage, helping some of the world’s poorest children," he says. "We can’t be there with him helping those kids every day. But we can help him get the money he needs to save their lives." Cunningham worked with a steering committee that included community leaders such as Elaine Gantz Berman and Jennifer Kraft, as well as former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and his wife, Jeannie. When they held their kick-off event in October to launch the dinner, the group announced a goal of raising $250,000. The first $18 was contributed by Akewak himself—proceeds from a lemonade stand that he ran at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival.

Most people considered $250,000 to be a stretch for a first-time Denver fundraiser, half a world away from Ethiopia. But the goal was reached in just weeks, and by the time the dinner took place on January 13, 2011 generous donors had contributed almost $500,000. Several friends of Dr. Rick’s traveled from throughout North America to be there for the evening. Supporters from Vancouver and Dallas who had hosted children from Ethiopia in their homes following surgeries were in attendance, and a number of Dr. Rick’s sons took a break from their studies at U.S universities to fly in for the event.

The evening offered rare inspiration. Marilyn Berger was there, on stage with her son Danny, to share the story of how they became a family. Father Michael Sheeran from Regis University bestowed an honorary doctorate on Dr. Rick, an honor often reserved for Nobel Prize Winners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus. Dr. Rick shared slides of patients before and after their surgeries, and he then talked about a recent patient, a woman he met at the Telluride Film Festival where Making the Crooked Straight was being shown.

Prudence Mabhena was also in Telluride as the subject of a documentary, hers entitled Music by Prudence. That film went on to win the 2010 Academy Award for best short documentary. Born in Zimbabwe, Prudence has arthrogryposis, a disease that affects her joints and restricts use of her arms or legs. She was abandoned by her parents and raised by her maternal grandmother, eventually moving into the King George VI School and Centre for Children with Disabilities. There, she formed the band Liyana with other disabled musicians. Shantha Rau Barriga wrote in the Huffington Post, "The music of Liyana sends a clear message of how the lives of us all – abled and disabled – are enriched when the barriers that separate us are broken down."

At the dinner in Denver, Dr. Rick told the story of meeting Prudence. He immediately identified her as having a spinal issue that needed treatment, a diagnosis that would prove accurate. Without surgery to correct her spine, her lungs would eventually be crushed, and she could die. After the audience viewed an excerpt from the Oscar-winning film, the room went dark, and from the darkness came the voice of an angel singing Amazing Grace. Prudence herself had come to Denver. Emcee Bazi Kanani told the crowd that Prudence would be evaluated by Children’s Hospital for potential surgery on her spine. "They’re going to save my life," Prudence said.

Yet another small miracle along the path of Dr. Rick Hodes.

Noel Cunningham hopes to inspire other cities to host dinners to support Dr. Rick and his work, along the lines of the "Taste of the Nation" events that raise millions for hunger and poverty relief. He thinks it would be incredible if donor communities could raise $10 million to allow Dr. Rick to build his own hospital. Cunningham recently told the Denver Post, "In my 24 years of doing different things, I believe this is the most meaningful, significant thing I've ever done. Rick's selflessness is truly inspiring."

Rebecca Arno has served for eight years as the Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation.