Melika is walking, and happy and strong!

DSC_0135 Born and raised in Harar, Ethiopia (over 300 miles east of Addis Ababa), Melika was discovered to have a serious heart condition when she was six months old. Her doctors did not at first understand the severity of her problem. When she was 5 years old, she was already suffering from exhaustion. Her doctors told her she would get better with time. Though Melika was a good student and enjoyed learning, her condition made it difficult even to climb the steps into her classroom and to keep up with the other children at school. Sometimes she would cough up blood.

We now know that Melika suffered from a condition called Tetrology of Fallot. This is a congenital heart defect, causing blood without oxygen to circulate through the body. Commonly called “blue baby syndrome,” the only effective treatment is early surgical intervention. Without this repair, prognosis is poor and fatality can occur from heart failure. Survival into adulthood is not likely.

Melika searched for surgery unsuccessfully — for 18 years! Her aunt, a patient at a hospital in Addis Ababa, had heard of the work we do and referred Melika to our clinic. Fortunate to have already lived so long, it was important to act fast. We sent Melika for surgery in our India heart group earlier this year.

To prepare, she taught herself Hindi by watching Bollywood movies. Her medical team was shocked by her ability to communicate! She actually helped translate between Hindi and Amharic for our other patients. Melika was very scared to have surgery, but knew it was necessary. Now that she is back home in Harar, her life is completely changed. She can not only climb stairs with ease, but she can run and play sports with her friends. More importantly, she no longer is at risk of heart failure, and will likely live a long and normal life. She even fasted on Ramadan for the first time.

Melika is an enthusiastic biology student and hopes to become a doctor. To our donors, she says, “For the first time I can walk and be normal. Thank you so much! You gave me my life back!”


Thank you Dr. Sarah Woodrow, Thank you DePuy Spines, Yalew is now walking!

DSC01631Why is Yalew standing in the road in Gondar? Because now he can!

Late last year, I was asked to evaluate Yalew in Gondar, 500 miles Northwest of Addis Ababa. Yalew had a neck deformity causing paralysis – he could not walk, he could not lift his arms or feed himself, and he was getting progressively worse. His problem is called Os Odontoideum, a congenital problem of the 2nd neck bone (C2), separating it from the first bone (C1). His spinal cord was being pinched at the base of his skull. As a result, the nerves in the spinal cord which travel from the brain to the rest of the body, allowing us to quite literally do everything – move, feel, breath – were being
damaged. In Yalew’s case​,​ he couldn’t stand up, walk,or even use his arms and hands to feed himself. ​5 Ethiopian senior physicians signed an official document recommending that Yalew go abroad for surgery. I was then consulted. ​

A few weeks later, I learned that renowned Kansas neurosurgeon Dr. Sarah Woodrow, would be visiting Ethiopia. I emailed her details of 16 cases, including Yalew. She put Yalew on the top of her priority list, knowing that she might be able to help him regain function.

Yalew’s family wanted Dr. Woodrow to come to Gondar to operate. We explained that this was not possible – the Gondar hospital is not yet equipped for complex neurosurgery care. They managed to bring him to Addis Ababa in a minibus, and he was admitted to Black Lion Hospital, the hospital of Addis Ababa University.

In the operating room, Dr. Woodrow led a team of Ethiopian neurosurgeons which carefully removed the bone at the base of Yalew’s skull and the top of his spine, which was compressing his spinal cord. They then inserted a series of screws and rods in the base of the skull and top of the spine to, quite literally, keep his head on top of his neck. Bone was taken from his hip bone to graft onto his spine, in hopes that new bone would grow across the surgical site, providing a more permanent biological source of strength to keep his head in this position.

I visited Yalew on a recent trip to Gondar.

Yalew is feeding himself! Yalew can raise his arms! Yalew walked with me 200 meters to the main road when I left! He is so happy to not be an invalid.

Dr. Sarah Woodrow: thanks so much for your dedication, coming to Ethiopia every year, at your own expense, operating and teaching Ethiopians to expand their surgical skills.

An thank you DePuy Synthes! This could also not have been done without the help of DePuy Synthes Spine, which donates the equipment and implants so Dr. Woodrow can operate: without DePuy’s donation, Yalew would not be walking.

Yalew – keep walking, we wish you the best!



Yalew Adgeh 10

Yalew Adgeh 24

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Meet Yosef: Once Paralyzed, Now Walking!

DSC09536With great pleasure, we’d like to introduce Yosef, who was paralyzed when he came to us, and now he’s walking!

Yosef came to me in December with a very recent history: he could not stand for 6 weeks, Previously he had no problems controlling his body, his mom told me he could no longer control his urine. In careful testing, I found that he had decreased feeling from the waist down. He had hyperactive knee jerks, and his feet shook uncontrollably (sustained clonus). You can see him slumped in the chair.

I quickly suspected a spinal cord tumor. A quick MRI confirmed this:  “Intra-dural, extra-medullary cystic mass displacing the spinal cord posteriorly at T5-T7 level.” Note the black golf ball-like mass compressing his spinal cord.

We immediately recognized that this is a medical emergency – good medical care and a bit of luck could save this boy from permanent paralysis. We flew him and his mom to the FOCOS Hospital in Accra, Ghana. Caring for a paralyzed 6 year old is a full-time job, and nobody can do that with more dedication than his mom.

Early this year, he had surgery by Dr. Boachie and Akoto. They found that he had a 1.5 cm arachnoid cyst. They did a T4-5 laminectomy, and the cyst removed. Yosef had screws and rods put in. Since then he had intensive physical therapy, and steady improvement. When he flew back recently, he could not stop showing off walking with his walker, from one side of the airport to the other.

Yosef – keep moving!

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Introducing Haftom, now smiling all the time!

1Introducing Haftom, a 20 year old orphan from Adigrat in Tigrai, Northern Ethiopia.

Haftom is the youngest of 3 children: his sister is an electrician, a brother drives a bulldozer. Haftom’s mother had died years ago, and his father, a soldier wounded in the conflict with Eritrea, died later. Haftom lived with his brother and sister, and took his studies very seriously – he was always at the top of his class. This was despite the loss of his parents, taunting from classmates, and difficulties at home.

He was desperate for care: he visited a traditional healer who scratched him and scarred him, without success. He went to holy water sites over 50 times, but his back continued to deform.

However,  5 years ago, his friend met one of our spine patients and told him to come see us. He took the bus to Addis Ababa for the first time in his life. He came to our waiting room, and was amazed to see many patients not so different from himself. For the first time in his life, he felt “at home.”

Haftom’s deformity was one of the worst we had seen, because it was really 3-dimensional, 2-D images cannot capture the extent of his deformity.  He followed up with us every year. FOCOS Hospital in Accra started using ambulatory traction, and finally our call came  – we needed him to leave for Ghana as soon as possible. He borrowed money and flew to Addis Ababa.

Upon arrival he was 5’3”, and weighed 92 pounds. His BMI was 11.6! He had lost 73% of his lung capacity. He had a 124 degree spinal angle from the front, and another 120 degrees on the side (laterally). His ATR was 30 degrees.

He was in traction in Ghana for 5.5 months. He was very afraid at the time of surgery. The patients started a nightly prayer group, and all prayed for him. He chose not to tell his family about his surgery – he did not want to worry them. But he promised God that he’d give a gift to his church if he survived.

In late January, he underwent a surgery of nearly 4 hours, in which he underwent fusion from T2-L3, Smith-Peterson osteotomies from T6-T11, concave rib osteotomies from T7-T11, thoracoplasty from T8-T10, and bone grafting. 4 rods and 16 screws were inserted.

Haftom is now living with a cousin in Addis Ababa. In September, after Ethiopian New Year, he’ll start 9th grade, aiming to become a mechanical engineer. For the first time in years, he can walk comfortably, breath easily, and has minimal pain.

“Without you, my future would be terrible, he told us with tears in his eyes, “now I have a real life, and a real future.”

– Dr. Rick Hodes

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Welcome to the House of Spine

Dr. Rick flew to Ghana last week, accompanied by 20 spine patients, ranging in age from 3 to over 20. We have great things happening these days – Befekadu, located via Facebook, has had successful surgery and is now on-the-mend. Mesai, who had slept in a taxi at night while he was homeless, is doing well in traction.

Ambassador Gifti Abasiya, Ethiopian Ambassador to Ghana, visited our project and, speaking both Amharic and Oromifa, spent several hours with our patients. She encouraging them to get through their medical treatment with courage, to study hard, and to build their lives and build Ethiopia. Ambassador Gifti pointed out that she estimates there are 50 Ethiopians in Ghana. That’s not counting our 60 patients. By these counts, the MAJORITY of Ethiopians in Ghana are our spine patients!

Ambassador Sharon Bar-Li, of Israel, was delighted to see this project uniting Americans, and Ethiopians, and people of all faiths with the goal of healing Ethiopian youths with spinal deformities.

The patients met us with poems in English and Amharic, and a wonderful sign welcoming us to the “House of Spain.” They meant Spine – we loved this gesture.







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A year-end message for our supporters

Dear Friends and Supporters

Anaf and Abigail

New Spine Patients Graph

Total to date Morale is so high in our program, many former spine patients volunteer with us to help others.

We’ve had 352 Ethiopians operated on in Ghana through July, 2014. If this was done in the USA, it would cost $50 million dollars! Our cost in Ghana is significantly less than 10% of that.

We have a large volume of patients, with very severe deformities. Noted spine surgeon Professor Rajasekaran commented to me “You have the largest collection of the worst spines in the world.” Dr. Boachie said “Rick, I’ve never seen spines like in Ethiopia.”

Recently, Dr. Boachie visited us for 2 weeks. We analysed over 400 patients, some before surgery, and some after. We have hundreds of patients with angles over 100 degrees. And some with angles over 200 degrees! We have identified new deformities, which have never been reported – we call them saxophone spines, gamma-spines, and translocated spines.

We have a priority list: 68 patients have our highest priority, needing traction and surgery in the coming months. Another 48 have a slightly lower priority. Another 52 we hope to operate on in about a year. We have hundreds of patients needing surgery, to maintain their health.

Kids in traction

And while we have plans and priority lists, emergencies arise. Five year old Yosef Wondimu came in on December 2nd . He was carried in – his dad told us he is newly paralyzed –he could not walk for 6 weeks. Urgent MRI of the spine showed a spinal cord tumor in the middle of his spine, severely compressing his spinal cord. It appears to be benign. We are sending him to Ghana for urgent surgery by a neurosurgeon at FOCOS. Caring for a paralyzed boy is a full-time job, so we’re sending his mom with him. After surgery and rehabilitation, we hope Yosef will walk again.

Yosef Wondimu

We aim to send 100 spine patients to Ghana in 2015. A spine surgery costs $18-$20,000 in Ghana.
We need to raise $2 million. We are their only hope.

Spine patients in Ghana

Last week 15 spine patients showed up unexpectedly in clinic to give an Ethiopian shirt to Rick. Take a look at what they wrote:

A letter to Rick

And look at some of our patients:

Impressive patient stories

Our ultimate goal is to have a spine center in Addis Ababa to evaluate patients and perform basic surgery.

In the heart realm, we’ve gotten over 125 new patients this year. We sent 2 groups of 13 patients to India for cardiac surgery and procedures this year, and have funding to send another group shortly. And we’re treating 2 boys for bone cancer right now.

Where is your money going

Sisay before surgery

Sisay in Traction

Sisay after surgery

Zinash before and after

Whatever holidays you celebrate, we wish joy, health, happiness, and peace, and a great 2015 to you all.

Please support us as generously as you can. And forward this to all your friends and family.

Dr. Rick Hodes and the JDC-Ethiopian spine and heart team.

Donation through the website links to the JDC donations site, and is fully tax-deductible. 100% goes to our project in Ethiopia. Contact us with questions about mailing checks.

Profile in courage: Messay

SP Mesay Habtamu 14- 7We all love meeting some of the most courageous young people on the planet. Look at  Messai, a 16 year old.

Messay is from Fiche, about 4 hours from Addis Ababa. His parents died when he was 4 years old. Neighbors took him in. They were farmers with 8 children. They permitted him to go to school. But they treated him like a servant. They fed him worse food than their own kids. The kids did not treat him like a brother. But he was alive, and he was surviving. However, at age 10, he developed shaking chills, followed by severe back pain. His spine began deforming. He was not treated.

His host family later told him that they did not want him in school – he had to work full-time attending to their animals. Determined to be educated, a few years ago he moved to the town of Fiche – a 3 ½ hour walk, followed by a 90 minute car ride from his village. Messay’s friend from his village had moved there, living alone in a rented room and attend 9th grade. It is not uncommon for dedicated Ethiopian students to leave home at an early age like this in order to get educated.

In Fiche, he met a shoe shine boy and rented his box for 5 birr/day (25 cents US) when it was not being used. He could make 50 birr ($2.50) on a good day. His diet depended on his success at shoe shining.

But his spine continued to deform, and Messay decided to come to Addis Ababa to seek medical care. He had saved 300 birr ($15). Using his savings, he got on a bus heading to the capital. He got off the bus when it stopped in Akaki outside Addis Ababa.

He met someone with a pickup truck and slept inside the truck his first night. The following day, he met a taxi driver and helped him wash the taxi. As they were washing, Messay told him about his life. He slept inside the taxi for a while.

Eventually, the taxi driver invited him to share his house with him – Messai paid 200 birr a month ($10) to sleep on an empty sack a dirt floor. He returned to his occupation of shining shoes again, often making over $1 per day. (UNICEF data shows that 31% of Ethiopians live on less than the international poverty line,  $1.25 daily).

Messay registered to start school school – 6th grade. After school started, the school director met the students and asked if anyone had special problems. Mesay pointed out that he had no family, no place to live, and no notebooks. A local woman, a recent widow, heard about him and took him into her home. She felt that if she took an orphan into her home, it would somehow benefit her late husband’s soul. She purchased clothes for him. His teachers uniformly admired his courage. The brother of his teacher was designated legal guardian.

Messay went to a local health center, seeking care for his deforming spine. He was referred to the university hospital and sent to CURE Hospital, a Christian orthopedic facility, which referred him to our clinic.

We evaluated him and immediately started TB treatment. We  funded his travel for every visit to us.

We determined that ithout surgery, he had a very high risk of paralysis: In our evaluation system, he was rated “1+”, our most urgent designation for spine care.

Recently we drove him to the airport early one morning and he got on the plane – by himself –  to fly to FOCOS Hospital in Accra. We asked him how he felt: “Now I realize I am not alone and for the first time, I have hope that I can be healed and have a future.”

Messay will spend months in traction before surgery. Messay’s goal after surgery: to become a doctor. We’d love to see this happen.

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