Aliyah Update: She’s Walking!

Aliyah is still in traction (an apparatus used to prepare her spine for surgery) but is able to walk with assistance!!!

– Dr. Hodes

Latest news about Aliyah + Matching grant still available

Our nurse Lemma personally brought Aliyah to FOCOS Hospital in Accra, Ghana early this month. (Read her story here.)

In addition to her z-shaped spinal deformity and NF (neurofibromatosis), she was also found to have Cor tritriatum – an extra heart atrium!

She has been in traction for over 2 weeks now. She is stable and doing well.

We’re hopeful that she will start to improve.

She is not fully funded, and our matching grant is still in place. We need your help– please donate today!

Thanks so much for your help,

Dr. Rick and the JDC-Ethiopia spine team

The JDC is a 501(c)3 organization, and all donations are tax-deductible.

New emergency appeal – with matching grant: Please – help us save Aliya’s life!

URGENT: We need raise $20,000 right away to save a young girl named Aliyah from becoming paralyzed. A wonderful donor is matching all donations up to $10,000. Please help us save Aliyah– donate today.

Aliyah first came to us in April as a paralyzed 9 year old girl. She returned a couple of weeks ago on the Saturday before Ethiopian Orthodox Easter. We usually close that day so our staff can prepare for the holiday. It’s a good thing we stayed open. While most of our Christian patients stayed home, we had plenty of Moslem patients who came in. Last patient of the day? Aliyah and both parents.

IMG_6422They live in the Silte region, 3 ½ hours away by car, followed by a 4 hour walk. When Aliyah became paralyzed months ago, both parents moved to Addis Ababa and rented a room in Akaki, outside Addis Ababa. Their rent? $5 per month. Her mom is 9 months pregnant at this moment, due any day. But both parents were at her side, absolutely dedicated to her health.

Aliyah has a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis – NF for short. About 4% of our spine patients have NF. She became paralyzed about 6 months ago. She was admitted to the university hospital for 3 weeks and got somewhat better. On her initial exam with us in April, she had signs of upper spinal cord compression – her big toes pointed up on Babinsky test. And she had super-active reflexes.

In recent weeks, she has had some return of feeling in he body and regained the ability to control her urine. I drove her myself to scanning center an hour before it closed for Easter. She is in a super-precarious situation. Her spine is dangerously unstable – it has a Z-shaped deformity, which we sometimes see in our NF patients. Even though she is a bit better, Dr. Boachie advised:

“Rick, this girl may be OK, but not for long. Her only chance of improving is immediate traction and later stabilization. But no guarantees. It is almost a dislocated spine.”

When I told a visiting physician who saw her with me that we’ll need at least $20,000 to try to save her, he said: “Rick – I’m in Ethiopia, and now God has put us together. I’ll match her donations – dollar-for-dollar – up to $10,000. Tell your donors.”

So now I am asking you all to generously donate $10,000 for her treatment in Ghana. As Dr. Boachie said, there’s no guarantee of success. But without our efforts, she will become paralyzed.

With gratitude,

Dr. Rick

story and photos used with full permission

The JDC is a 501(c)3 organization, and all donations are tax-deductible.


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The JDC is a 501(c)3 organization, and all donations are tax-deductible.

Thanks to Rotaplast, these kids are fixed!

At this moment, 10 million Ethiopians are threatened with drought and food insecurity. JDC’s response is to provide  150,000 packets of PlumpyNut, a peanut-based food supplement, and to dig 5 wells in drought-affected areas of Gondar.

Dr. Rick was in Gondar to deliver the food. After his team departed early, he was the only physician for 100 miles! During nutritional screening in the village of Hamusit, 3 babies showed up who had cleft lips and palates. These babies are at higher risk for nutritional problems and developmental delay. Rick took photos,  recorded their information, and told Zemene, the  head of the health center “I’ll contact you if I ever hear of a cleft team coming.”

Rick returned to Addis Ababa. Just  3 days later, Dr. Angelo Capozzi, founder of Rotaplast in San Francisco, stopped in to say hi – to ask for patients. In the 24 years since they were founded, Rotaplast has operated on over 17,000 kids worldwide!

Rick relates:

“I immediately phoned Zemene,  the health center director – phone was switched off. I called every hour – no luck. At 4PM, I stepped into a corner and said a prayer, asking that Zemene turn his phone on,  so we could help these kids. Just 30 seconds later, I got a text from the phone company – the phone had just switched on. Zemene went to work to round up the kids.”

By Monday, he had located them. They had no funds to travel 500 miles to the capital. Rick was in the middle of clinic at Yekatit 12 Hospital, when he handed a $100 bill to his assistant, with this instructions: “change this, and wire it to Zemene in Hamusit for travel costs.” Then ensued multiple problems – one bank would not accept the money, there was no electricity in Hamusit, there no internet access, someone tried  to inflate prices and skim money. Finally, we got Zemene on the phone: “borrow this money right now, get them onto a bus today, and you’ll pick up the money in the morning, when the bank is functioning.” The group travelled from Hamusit to Bahar Dar to Addis Ababa, arriving on a Thursday morning. We admitted them to the CURE Hospital, and the following day they underwent surgery by Dr. Angelo and his team – the last 3 patients they operated on.

After surgery, they moved into Mother Teresa’s Mission nearby. The  husband of one of the women slept on Dr. Rick’s living room couch for 10 days while his daughter healed.

Today they phoned – they’re back in Hamusit, the kids are fine.

Thank you Rotaplast – your help, and fantastic timing, saved these kids.


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Why are Tilahun and Abel smiling?

Being in Ethiopia so long ​has given my team and I great inspiration. The courage of my patients never ceases to astound us all. And sometimes, we are able to help patients unexpectedly. ​

DSC01346.jpgSo when a boy needing a corneal transplant walked into my office on a Friday, I told him that I am not an eye doctor. But I took a photo and immediately sent it to my friend, Dr. Geoff Tabin, a renowned ophthalmologist in Utah. To my surprise, Geoff wrote back “Rick, I arrive Sunday with fresh corneas, happy to help.” 4 days later, this boy had a new cornea!

My long-term spine patient Fekadu is also blind. B​oth his spinal deformity and blindness are due to tuberculosis as a child. Fekadu has overcome a lot, ​has a degree in history from Addis Ababa University (the Harvard of Ethiopia), ​and managed to become a teacher. He asked me if I could get him a braille typewriter. I have no sources of typewriters, but I put that request into a commencement speech. Someone who heard the speech contacted me, and put me in touch with the wonderful group Volunteers of Vacaville,​ in California. VOV donated a typewriter, which we passed on to Fekadu. He is shown with a couple of our volunteers.​

And now, let me introduce Tilahun. Tilahun is a boy from Alamata in Tigrai, ​who travelled hundreds of miles across the country to a  Addis Ababa, for treatment of a terribly enlarged and painful tibia, just  below his left knee. ​We arranged his amputation, and sent the tumor to the University of Rochester in New York for detailed pathologic analysis. The diagnosis: a cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma.

We found medicine, and arranged chemotherapy. ​Tilahun underwent 17 ​grueling cycles of chemotherapy. He vomited like hell, he lost his hair. We encouraged him as much as we could – we’d get him movie tickets – he planned his outings for ​the ​weeks where he would not be vomiting. His favorite movie ​is​ The Walk, which in 3D is simply spectacular.

Tilahun is now cancer-free. Now, Tilahun’s goal is to get an artificial leg, and return to school.  We​’​ve put in the order for the prosthesis​. I sat down with him the other day, to discuss his life. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.

Tilahun looked at me, and he burst out crying.  I was wondering if he was worried​ about his cancer returning, or he was ​missing his family up in Tigrai​, or concerned about missing school. But this kid astounded us all. He composed himself and said “I feel so bad when I see blind people here – they have such a difficult life. Our​ streets have holes they can fall into. I want to start an organization to help them.”

A few days later, my blind patient Abel came to see me. Abel comes from a remote area of Gojjam province, and was brought to Addis Ababa​ as a child, ​with promises to send him to a blind school. Instead, someone put him up to begging on the street, until Abel was able to escape. A​bel overcame that, and returned to school. Several years ago, with assistance from a Hawaii Foundation,  we brought him to the Colorado School for the Blind where he underwent intense training in blind skills. Abel is now studying social work at Addis Ababa University.

Abel was recently walking on the street here and fell into a hole, injuring his back. And he broke his cane. He came to me to get his back checked, then asked if I happened to have a cane. “Actually, I buy canes on I ​always ​keep​ a couple at home,” I said, “blind people ask me for canes​.”

I decided to introduce Tilahun and​ Abel, and let Tilahun ​deliver the cane. ​We arranged a meeting, and both ​Abel showed up at clinic​ last week​. Abel was carrying a brass bell from Colorado, reading “Take Charge with Confidence.” T​ilahun and Abel​ became instant friends. And Tilahu gave Abel a new cane. “Tilahun,” Abel said, “for me to get a new cane – it’s like a new car!” Thank you so much.”  DSC01344.jpgIMG_1522.jpgSpTB Fekadu Wolde-Tensai (Blind) 8-2010 - 02.jpgTypewriter 8-2013.jpg

2015 Annual Report: Thank you for another an amazing year!

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Dear Friends and Supporters,

At year’s end, we’d like to report on our work, thank you, and ask for your continued support. We’ve had an amazingly busy and successful year!

Click here to download the full 2015 Annual Report.


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Hearts: We have 154 new heart patients so far this year, and we’ve sent 2 groups to India for surgery.

Take a look at 2 year old Natnael. Nati caScreen Shot 2015-12-21 at 9.43.02 PMme to us with 2 problems: he was born with cataracts, making him blind from birth. Plus, he had a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus) shunting a lot of blood away from his heart. (The ductus normally closes at birth, but sometimes remains open, especially at high altitudes like ours, causing potential heart failure). Cataracts should be operated on within the first 2 months of life. But nobody would touch Nati’s eyes – due to heart issues. Hence, he remained blind and weak. His dedicated mom was 100% supportive, fed him, carried him, and kept him going. That’s when she came to us and we realized that we had a great opportunity to change Nati’s life.

Led by my assistant, Kaleab, Nati and his mom travelled to India with 13 patients in October. He underwent closure of his PDA, followed by cataract surgery a few days later. His eyes remained covered for a week, and then bandages were removed and he looked at his mom for the Gfirst time – and smiled! Mom reports that he is walking on his own, tracking objects, as he rewires brain circuits, learning to see for the first time. Now he has a chance to go forward in life.

Spines: We have 424 new spine patients so far this year. This is another record for us. We’ve sent 76 patients to Ghana for surgery. On arrival, at least half underwent months of traction, before corrective surgery.

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This has been a year filled with visitors.

  • Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 10.09.08 PMDr. Oheneba Boachie came to Ethiopia 3 times this year. He operated on 27 patients, adjusting growing rods and more.
  • Dr. Kamal Ibrahim, the most senior spine surgeon in Chicago, made 2 trips to Ethiopia. In October, he arrived with a team of 10 doctors and nurses, sponsored by the Nuvasive Corporation. They operated on 5 patients, and began training Ethiopian surgeons and nurses in spine surgery.
  • Dr. Ted Belanger, of Dallas, came to Ethiopia in May, and operated on 14 patients sponsored by Medtronic Corporation.
  • One boy, Asalefew, had some neurologic impairment after surgery. He pursued his physical therapy with such dedication that we now say that he’s lying – his name is no longer Asalefew, it’s Haile Gebre- Selassie, our great runner! Now Asalefew is walking up a storm.
  • Dr. Sarah Woodrow of Kansas was in Ethiopia, sponsored by DePuy Spines. She operated on 3 of our patients, including Yalew, a young man from Gondar who was virtually paralyzed. He could not walk and could lift his hands only 6 inches. Now he’s walking and feeding himself!
  • Texas: Recently Rick was in Texas to speak in several venues, arranged by friends Kathy and John Ward. At the same time, Rick’s son Dejene arrived with 2 spine patients. Dejene, who first traveled to Texas as a young orphan in 2002 for his own TB spine surgery, brought new patients and translated for them. Dr. Ted Belanger operated on them at Medical Center of Plano with great success.
  • Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 10.13.52 PMHaymanot came from the countryside and was living in a church in Addis Ababa, when Rick admitted him to Mother Teresa’s Mission for nutritional support. He had progressive ankylosing spondylitis, bent over at a 90o angle, supporting himself with a stick as he walked. When the Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 10.13.47 PMpossibility of getting surgery in America came up, we started 2 programs: education and nutrition. He went to school to study English every day. And we gave him Plumpy-Nut, a calorie-dense peanut supplement, which cost about 1 dollar- a-day, providing an extra 1000 calories. Haymanot added 20 pounds and felt stronger than ever. After 14 hours of surgery, involving multiple Smith-Petersen osteotomies, he stands really straight. He is now in physical therapy in Dallas. He wants to return home for Ethiopian Christmas, January 7th.


Gary Segal is our Canadian friend and supporter who organized the Bring Back Hope Dinner in 2012. Moreover, Gary sponsored a patient named Tesfaye for complicated spine surgery in Vancouver, and welcomed Tesfaye into his home for 6 months. Gary returned to Ethiopia and again traveled with Tesfaye to his Agaw village in rural Gojjam.

The JDC Board visited, and reviewed our work.

Our supporters The Max and Marian Farash Foundation of Rochester, NY visited our work for the first time.

Ambassador Susan Jacobs, President Obama’s Special Emissary for Children, visited our clinic at Yekatit 12 Hospital and met many of our patients.

Rick received an honorary doctorate in science, DSc, from Kenyon College in Ohio at their commencement in May. It is his fifth honorary doctorate.


Henry Schein, Inc continues to donate INR testing supplies to us so that we can do free followup on heart patients taking blood thinners. Most are quite poor, and this is a huge help in providing them quality cardiac care.

Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) donated hundreds of backpacks for our patients.


We are moving forward to make our work more sustainable. We have 2 Ethiopian surgeons – 1 orthopedic and 1 neurosurgeon, who want to become spine surgeons. Dr. Eskinder volunteers with us every week, and both were in the operating room with our visiting teams. We look forward to the time in a few years when they will be able to do our easier cases without assistance.

Ethiopia has suffered from lack of rain in some regions, and is suffering from a food shortfall. In the words of the Ethiopian government: “the country now faces deepening food insecurity and soaring malnutrition rates, especially among children and mothers.” Working closely with Ethiopian authorities, JDC is planning an immediate response to supply supplementary food for the majority of affected people in 1 region of Gondar province, targeting food assistance to 5,400 children and mothers. This will be followed by the digging of 5 wells to provide clean water.


Margarita Manduley, a prominent attorney in Los Angeles, will host a fund-raising event with her husband at their La Loggia Restaurant on Sunday, March 20, 2016. Margarita has been to Ghana several times as well as Ethiopia and seen first-hand the work we do.

Rick will be commencement speaker at University of Rochester Medical School in May, 2016.


Zemene, a film about our patient, an orphan from Gondar with spine disease, has shown at over a dozen film festivals, and won 8 awards, including Best Documentary (Boston) and Best of the Festival (Ohio). Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone, called it “Just brilliant.” It is now available for purchase online:



Middlebury Magazine recently did a major profile on Rick.

Author Wyatt Orme spent 10 days at Rick’s side, exploring his work from every angle.

Rick wrote a guest blog of our TB spine patient Mubarak for Abraham Verghese’s Stanford 25 Website.


Undoubtedly, we will continue to get a large number of patients, as word spreads of our work. We will continue working with our partners Dr. Boachie, Dr. Kamal, Dr Ted, and Dr. Sarah, training Ethiopian physicians. We need to handle the large amount of data we collect in a more programmed manner. Our goal is to have a fully functioning spine centre. We aim to keep the cardiac program at the same level.

Gary Segal brought 2 spine surgeons from Vancouver to analyse our work. They calculated that there are perhaps 50,000 Ethiopians with spinal deformities. Having done over 500 surgeries, we are only 1% done! Plus, with 3 million births per year, more babies will be born with congenital defects.

It’s humbling to think that we have come from nothing to performing well-over 500 spine surgeries – and still have tens of thousands needing our immediate help. Three weeks ago, we sent 23 “super-urgent” patients to Ghana for traction and surgery. Despite this, we have hundreds waiting for surgery, including 44 newly classified as “1+,” our most urgent cases.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, we hope they are filled with warmth and love and health and good hope.

With your help – and with the Almighty’s – we can move forward. Many thanks for your support!

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

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Photos and stories taken with permission.

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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