Click here for Sunday worship material

Dr. Rick Hodes Mission Work-by Deb Hammer

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share Central‘s June mission with you.

Dr. Rick Hodes is an American doctor who is from Long Island, New York. He is currently the medical director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (which I will abbreviate as JDC) in Ethiopia and of the JDC’s Spine and Heart Project.

Rick received his first degree in geography from Middlebury College. He lived for three years in Alaska and it was there that he realized that wanted to be a doctor. He took premed classes at the University of Alaska and enrolled in medical school at the University of Rochester.    He trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Rick first went to Ethiopia during the famine of 1984 and returned in 1985 on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach medicine at Addis Ababa University for one year. He extended his stay and taught for 2 ½ years and managed an outpatient cardiac clinic.

In 1991, JDC hired Rick to be their medical director in Ethiopia. He was responsible for the medical care of the Ethiopian immigrant Jews who had been selected to go to Israel. On May 24-25, 1991, Operation Solomon took place and 14,400 Jews were evacuated to Israel. Rick was on the last flight out and spent time in Israel to help organize health records and plan for the continuation of important treatment for diseases such as tuberculosis.

In 1994 JDC sent Rick to the Kibumba Refugee camp located outside of Goma, Zaire, where more than 1 million Rwandan refugees fled during the Rwandan civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis. This war was a well-planned, low-tech genocide. It was in Goma where I met Rick.

I worked for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Somalia and was about to start a week of R&R. I was in the IRC office in Nairobi, Kenya, when I met an IRC staff member who was in charge of setting up a program in the refugee camp. He asked me to spend my break in Goma, Zaire.

Rick and a couple of his JDC health staff were staying on the IRC compound in Goma where we lived in tents in the yard.

On my first day in the Kibumba refugee camp, I worked closely with Rick. The living conditions in the camp were horrific. The camp was located on volcanic rock. The outhouses were nicknamed the “litter boxes” since sand was trucked in and waste was removed. At the time I was there, shelters consisted of a piece of plastic draped over sticks and held down by rocks. There were multiple health issues including cholera and shigella outbreaks and a lack of clean water and food. All supplies had to be trucked in. As we drove up to the camp, there were hundreds of bodies piled on the side of the road of souls that had passed in the night. A scene that was repeated every day.

The first patient we visited was a woman Rick had seen the previous day after she had just given birth.  She was lying outside and was in emotional shock. Her baby was in the “tent” and was hypothermic, with almost no heart rate and a low respiration rate. We started chest compressions on the baby and I was about to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and Rick stopped me. He told me that the HIV risk was too high. I wondered why we continued to do chest compressions until the baby passed. This was not logical practice for medical triage.  Reflecting on the situation, I feel that Rick did not want the baby to die alone. While listening to one of Rick’s many interviews to prepare for this presentation, he mentioned that he had consulted with a Rabi prior to going to Goma. He was concerned about the ethical decisions he would face knowing not everyone could be saved. Do I treat a mother, because if she dies, who will care for her children? Do I not treat the elderly since they have had full lives? The Rabi got back to Rick after speaking with his peers, and Rick was advised to treat all individuals as they came to him, since every life has value.

In the early days of the camp, we focused on saving lives through rehydration. We carried large buckets filled with bags of IV fluids and the supplies needed to rehydrate individuals. Rick introduced an innovative technique called peritoneal hydration where a needle is placed directly into the abdomen, allowing large volumes of IV fluids to be given rapidly. The fluid is absorbed over time. This was a technique he had learned in a cholera epidemic in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

I returned to Somalia, and Rick remained in Goma for 8 months. He and his team set up a 120-bed field hospital in a dozen tents in the camp. One day Rick found Taka, a Rwandan refugee child near death on the roadside in Goma, and took him to the Israeli field hospital that saved his life.  Rick’s work is his life, not just a day job. After being released from the hospital Taka moved into Rick’s tent for several months. Taka had reconstructive plastic surgery at NYU Medical Center in New York. Taka was adopted by a JDC volunteer and her husband.  They are Lutherans from Minneapolis, MN.  Rick loved to point out the importance of different religions working together.

I crossed paths with Rick again when I was working in Rwanda. I mentioned to him that I was applying to the University of Washington for graduate school, and he immediately asked if he could write me a letter of recommendation.

During the spring of 1999, JDC sent Rick to Albania for seven months during the height of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Rick started up three emergency medical clinics for refugees and supervised Kosovo doctors.

Rick has been serving the underserved for thirty-nine years. Years ago, along with his JDC director job, he set up a clinic at Mother Teresa’s Catholic Mission in Addis Ababa. He also has a second clinic in a hospital in Addis Ababa and travels to many other villages.

Rick has become the only specialist in Ethiopia handling tuberculosis of the spine and severe scoliosis. He manages heart disease including untreated congenital heart defects, complications from rheumatic fever, and other heart diseases and arrhythmias. He treats cancers and other primary healthcare issues.

Over the years, Rick has developed networks for medical support. He consults with specialists all over the world. The majority of spine surgeries are performed in Ghana, and some are performed in the United States. There is much more to correcting a spine then surgery alone. Spine patients are sent to Ghana in groups of twelve to 15. The older patients care for the younger ones since family members do not go with them. Patients can be in traction for 3 to 6 months prior to their surgery. Heart patients needing surgery are sent to India. Cancer/tumor-related surgeries are performed in multiple places around the world. He consults with oncologists on treatment plans and he is able to purchase low-cost medications from India.

One of Rick’s goals is to provide opportunities for Ethiopian doctors to be trained so patients can receive care at home.  This is done by bringing specialists to Ethiopia to train Ethiopian doctors and fundraising to send Ethiopian doctors to different countries for training.

Rick fundraises to cover the entire cost of his patients’ care. When he first started to manage orphaned children with TB of the spine, he was unsure how he would handle it financially. After prayer and receiving a message from God, he adopted a son to put him on his health insurance and took him to Texas for surgery. His son stayed with a host family while he recovered.  Rick then adopted a second son to pay for his treatment. He has legally adopted five children, all of whom attended school and some have been to the States for college. His home is filled with his children and patients who move into his place so they can be monitored morning and evening. Having 20 guests/patients at one time is normal. Rick faces many daily challenges, which can include having no running water, no electricity, and limited resources.

Rick’s medical tools are limited; he diagnoses and treats using his physical examination skills and a stethoscope. When necessary he arranges and pays for patients to have MRIs, x-rays, and blood work.

Rick’s work is life changing. He tells a story of a concerned uncle whose nephew needed spine surgery but was scared to have it. Rick invited his patient and uncle to come to his home in the evening to talk. As Rick and the Uncle sat down to tea, Rick asked one of his sons to take his patient outside and talk to him teenage to teenager. Thirty minutes later, they came back inside and the boy wanted the surgery. His surgery was successful. Years later, the uncle and his nephew visited Rick. Rick found out that the young man had just graduated medical school.


Thank you for letting me share Dr. Rick Hodes’ work with you.  Also, please take a minute to look at the photos on the mission board I brought with me today.  More information on Rick can be found on the internet by searching his name.

Please consider making a donation so Rick can continue his life-changing work.  A special offering will be collected today, or you can make a donation on his website: