Two amazing kids get life-saving spine surgery

Haymanot and Samrawit, 2 Ethiopians ​now​ in Dallas​,​ Texas, have been rebuilt!

And what a difference! Samrawit, a 12 year old, 6th grade student at the top of her class,​ hails​ from a rural area outside Addis Ababa​. She​ has progressive scoliosis. In the past year, her spine deteriorated from a 60 degree angle to an 89 degree deformity – take a look at her recent scan (below).

Click to watch a video of Haymanot, Samrawit, and Dr. Hodes on the news.

Samrawit was accepted for free surgery by Dr. Theodore Belanger of​ ​Texas Back Institute in Dallas, at Medical Center of Plano​ which provided free hospital care​. ​Samrawit underwent successful surgery a few days ago. She is now very straight, with 2 rods and 25 screws, donated by Medtronic. She is nearly 4 inches taller. Samrawit wants to return to Ethiopia as soon as she can – to become an astronomer!

Former spine patient ​Dejene Hodes brought ​Samrawit​ to Dallas​, a​long with​ Haymanot, age 20, from rural Gojjam. ​ Dr. Rick first met Haymanot when he appeared at a Catholic mission, appealing for food and assistance. He had a very severe deformity – a huge hunchback (kyphosis)​​​ caused by anklyosing spondylitis. Haymanot walked slowly, stooped over, supported by a stick. He was very malnourished, weighing less than 90 pounds.

Recently we started a nutritional support program, giving Haymanot 1,000 extra calories a day in PlumpyNut nutritional supplement, and sent him to school to study English. Haymanot ​gained 12 pounds, and ​excelled in school. He ​regained strength​. Two weeks ago, ​they​ boarded Ethiopian Airlines​, and headed to America​. Scans done in Dallas confirmed his diagnosis, but opened the possibility of simpler surgery involving multiple cuts in his backbones (osteotomies), rather than removal of a large chunk of bone. This is simpler surgery, with less blood loss and lower complication rate. Recently ​Dr. Belanger operated for a full​ day​. ​Hours later, Haymanot​ was very straight​, with a back straightened by rods and over 20 screws. Now​,​​ overjoyed about the success of his surgery​,​​ he wants to run a marathon​!​

It’s very, very difficult to get free spine surgery in the USA. Working together with the amazing Dr. Belanger, Medtronic, and Medical Center of Plano, we have been able to completely change the ​lives​ of these 2​ brave​ kids. The Ethiopian community in Dallas has been visiting​,​ bringing Ethiopian food every day. Thank you, thank you to all who have helped these youths!

– Dr. Rick Hodes

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Meet 13 amazing kids getting heart surgery in India

We have 13 kids in India right now for cardiac care. Many could be treated by procedure, and did not need open surgery. For Tofik, age 18 we hoped he could have ballooning of his dangerously narrowed mitral valve, but he was found to have an atrium filled with blood clot, despite a year on blood-thinners. He had surgery and is recovering well. Several others had aberrant blood vessels, known as PDAs (patent ductus arteriosus) closes, or holes in the heart closed.

Kids 3We have a 2 year old boy, blind with bilateral cataracts, have his dutus closed and is getting eye surgery. By the end of 2 weeks, he will walk with energy and see of the first time in his life. His mom is with him to help him through the process.

And we are doing more than hearts. Bilal, an 18 year old with a complicated problem in his cervical spine. He has Chiari malformation of the brain, and a deformity of the lower brainstem, upper medulla, and lower pons. I consulted the eminent expert on this, Professor Arnold Menezes of University of Iowa, who advised us on the approach. In India, he underwent posterior decompression of C1 and C2 and instrumentation with 2 rods and 4 screws. He is now out of bed and going in the right direction.

UPDATE: 10 of these kids returning from heart surgery in India tomorrow!

NOTE: Rick will be in New York on Oct 18-20, and then in Dallas from Oct 20-25. He will speak at the Rotary Club of Dallas on Wed, Oct 21 and the DFW World Affairs Council on Oct 22.


Dr. Rick Hodes

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Mid-Year Update On Our Life-Saving Work In Ethiopia

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Dear Friends and Supporters,

We aim to straighten the backs, and fix the hearts of Ethiopian youth. At mid-year, we want to give you an update, thank you, and ask for your help.

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Helping More Patients Every Year!

  • 2006: 20 new spine patients, 11 spine surgeries
  • 2014: ~400 new spine patients, over 75 spine surgeries
  • 2015 (1st half): 271 new spine patients, 100 spine surgeries, 12 heart surgeries and procedures
  • Total to date: over 510 spine surgeries completed in Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and America since 2006. Over 50 children with adjustable “growing-rods” to help them grow and maintain straight backs. About 2,000 spine patients in our program.

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Morale is very high in our program. We are filled with patients who volunteer in our clinic after their surgery, and have had four patients return to Ghana as staff:

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We’ve had ~428 Ethiopians operated in Ghana through June, 2015. If this was done in the USA, it would cost $85 million dollars! Our cost in Ghana is significantly less than 10% of that.

We have supplied at least half of the patients in the international FOX Study, looking at outcomes of the most extreme patients in the world, with spinal deformities of over 100 degrees. Knowledge gained from these extreme patients will benefit spine patients across the planet.

Dr. Boachie has been to Addis Ababa twice this year, and evaluated over 200 patients with us, then did a dozen surgeries on kids with “growing rods.” The North American registry has about 400 kids with “growing rods,” we in Ethiopia have about 50! He will return for another round of evaluations and surgery in November. And while we have plans and priority lists, emergencies arise. 14-year old Eyob Wondwossen with neuromuscular scoliosis was seen by Dr. Boachie and Dr. Wolf, his anesthesiologist and given our highest priority to save his life. He left for Ghana with his mom as caregiver, in May. 

We aim to send 100 spine patients to Ghana in 2015. A spine surgery costs $18-$22,500 in Ghana. We need to raise $2 million. We are their only hope.

Take a look at some of our patients:

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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 100 new patients this year. We sent 13 patients to India for cardiac surgery and procedures this year, and we’re planning a group in the coming months. We’re also treating 2 boys for bone cancer right now.

Changes in visa rules have caused us to lose our foreign volunteers. Instead, we are hiring local staff. A new Ethiopian orthopaedic resident has joined us, and intends to enter training in spine surgery.  On a typical clinic day we also have 4 or 5 former patients who show up to volunteer:

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We have upgraded our computer systems, and are establishing a cloud-based digital medical records system, probably the only one in Ethiopia.

We are in close contact with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, and may move our headquarters to a new hospital in Addis Ababa in the coming months.

Noted spine surgeon Prof. Kamal Ibrahim will be making his first trip to us in September to discuss long-term collaboration.

We’d like to publicly thank our partners:

  • Dr. Oheneba Boachie
  • Adjei and FOCOS hospital, Ghana
  • University of Rochester Pathology Department
  • AIMS Amrita Hospital, Cochin, India
  • University of British Columbia
  • Canada Gondar University, Ethiopia
  • Share Tsedek Hospital, Jerusalem
  • Dr. Dan Fink of Shaare Zedek Medical Center
  • Dr Ted Belanger of Texas Back in Dallas
  • Long Island Spine Specialists has done a free surgery for us

Wish you all a great summer, and hope you can visit us here !

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

– Dr. Rick Hodes and the JDC-Ethiopia spine and heart team

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

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!



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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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