“Do good stuff.”
I don’t know if Dr. Rick Hodes contemplated before he crafted this succinct response, or if his generous words rolled out like a mantra.
I’m betting on the latter.
It was 1:45 a.m. in Ethiopia, 7,600 miles away, when the good doctor answered my first question — What is our optimal objective on this planet? — plus a few more via e-mail from his small home office.
There’s little time to contemplate, or sleep, when you’re Hodes, medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, recipient of four honorary degrees, adoptive father of five young men and the subject of a biography and three documentary films, including the affecting, award-winning “Zemene,” which will make you want to do good stuff.
The movie, which follows the lifesaving transformation of an Ethiopian girl born with a devastating spine deformity, will be shown in Minneapolis on Sunday at a fundraiser for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Pathways to Children.
Hodes joins the film’s star, Zemene Tiget, for a question-and-answer session, followed by a live auction and dinner. The public is invited.
Pathways was founded in 2008 by Grace Strangis, who partners with reputable organizations in Ethiopia, India and Colombia to improve the education, health and job prospects of children and their mothers.
“I really wanted to do something for Rick,” said Strangis, formerly a practicing nurse, who has traveled to Ethiopia six times. Money raised from her event will help fund a four-room school and a well in Zemene’s village.
“I have dreams of taking high school kids from here to work in a JDC school in Ethiopia,” Strangis said.
“It changes their lives. These are the kids who are going to find the solutions to poverty. So many of them come back raring to go.”
‘The moment is golden’
While compassion coupled with first-class medical care saved Zemene’s life, serendipity sure didn’t hurt.
Hodes and Zemene literally ran into each other on the streets of Gondar, Ethiopia, in 2007. Filmmaker Melissa Donovan was with Hodes at the time, working as a camera operator on another project.
“Zemene took my heart from the beginning,” Donovan said. “Her radiant smile, this fragile-looking child, my camera was drawn to her.”
Donovan planned to give her film footage to someone else who could help Zemene. Instead, “Zemene” became Donovan’s five-year labor of love (zemenefilm.com), now traveling to film festivals across the country.
Hodes, an internist specializing in spine diseases, also was drawn to the tiny child. He guessed Zemene was 10 or 12 (she has no birth records) although she had the body of a 6-year-old. Hodes gave her a 5 percent chance of getting better without intervention.
“How are you?” he gently asked Zemene, who was accompanied by her loving uncle, Menormelkam Endashew. “It will be OK.”
He likes to note that the day he met Zemene was Mother Teresa’s birthday.
At the time, Hodes didn’t know that Zemene, whose name means “the moment is golden,” was born in a mud hut in rural Ethiopia. Her mother died of malaria when Zemene was 3. With her twisted spine, she was no help to her father in the fields, so he abandoned her to her grandparents and Endashew.
As they stood together on the street corner that day, a heartbroken Zemene had just been rejected from the hospital after four days of waiting.
Hodes nursed Zemene back to health, then introduced her to a world-renowned spine surgeon.
Donovan’s lens captures the harrowing and the heartwarming, plus the luminous Ethiopian countryside. “Before, I would cry,” Zemene says in the film. “My friends were healthy and I was not. But now I have hope that I will be healed.”
A great need for help
This kind of response has driven Hodes for three decades.
Born in 1953 in Long Island and educated at Johns Hopkins, Hodes first traveled to Ethiopia as a relief worker during the 1984 famine. He learned Amharic in Addis Ababa while teaching at the medical school there.
He’s the subject of the biography, “This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes,” by Marilyn Berger, and “Making the Crooked Straight,” a film by Susan Cohn Rockefeller.
Good days, Hodes writes, are when phone and Internet service, electricity and running water are all available, which didn’t define this particular day.
“Today, we had no electricity part of the day, no water in my office and terrible phone service,” he wrote.
But those are manageable frustrations. “The most difficult thing, actually, is dealing with the volume and degree of suffering,” Hodes wrote.
At any point, he has a list of 50 patients who need spine surgery.
“They come at me from all directions. I can only help a minority of them.”
Hodes pays rent on two homes, where as many as 18 youths live or come to socialize. He tells young doctors: “Follow your heart.”
That is just what Hodes did on Mother Teresa’s birthday eight years ago.
Zemene now is a confident, poised and grateful young woman who dreams of becoming a doctor, and helping her village.
“She would have died a painful death in the rural area,” filmmaker Donovan said. “She’s doing great. She can breathe. She’s really smart. She’s going to go far with the great intention to help others.
“Rick gave her a second life.”