Friday, December 21, 2012

Reflecting on Life in the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy(from Ethiopia Dec. 2012)

(Note: I have just returned from a tiring but enjoyable and productive trip to Ethiopia and am committed to a long overdue updating of this blog, before the end of 2012.  For now I am posting some initial thoughts I was moved to put down on paper while in Ethiopia.)

Reflections on Life from Ethiopia - by Gary Segal   Dec.16, 2012

A World of Extremes -- from Unfathomable Violence to an Extraordinary Life of Kindness

It is impossible to even begin to understand what possesses a person to carry out the tragic massacre that occurred in Connecticut.  How can anyone possibly do that, especially to so many innocent young children?  What creates such callous acts of heartlessness?

In the face of events like this, I feel so fortunate to be in Ethiopia spending time with my friend and hero, Dr. Rick Hodes, over the past 10 days.  If you ever want your faith in the goodness of people to be restored, there is nothing better than a first-hand glimpse into the life of devotion Rick has led here in Ethiopia for some 24 years.  His life story is well chronicled, from his unique extended Ethiopian family of 5 adopted and 18 or so foster children, to his remarkable medical career devoted to saving the world one life at a time (see 

I have had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Rick on his patient visits and examinations on a number of occasions, including 3 days on this trip. Rick is dealing with some of the most sick and destitute people in the world, but I find the experience interesting, at times extremely tough emotionally, but in the end nourishing for the soul. I must say that each time I accompany Rick I always admire his bedside manner and sheer humanity; doctors all over could learn a lot from Rick in this area of patient care.

Over the course of those 3 days of accompanying Rick to Mother Teresa Mission, Cure Hospital and Yekatit 12 Hospital, Rick saw a wide variety of patients of all ages suffering from a myriad of health issues, including the kind of severe spine and heart conditions he is accustomed to, and a few other conditions he is not.  Dr. Rick sees cases repeatedly that most Western doctors may never come across even once in a lifetime. The first day, Saturday Dec. 8th, was a pretty typical day.  Dr. Robert Taylor, general surgery, and Dr. Brian Westerberg, ENT, from UBC Branch for International Surgery also came along for the rounds; in addition to finding the rounds with Rick an insightful introduction to the situation in Ethiopia, they also had some useful input into a few cases falling within their areas of expertise.  Also normally assisting Rick are Dr. Beficata, an Ethiopian doctor who has returned to Ethiopia after some time in the USA, general assistant Berhanu, long-time nurse Sister Tana, and current one year American volunteer and aspiring medical student Menachem.

First stop Mother Teresa children's wing, where we saw a bunch of very cute young children and babies.  When visiting here and also the schools in the countryside, coming from North America you really notice how the children naturally reach out to touch you or hold your hand to feel the warmth of human contact; Ethiopians are much more tactile by nature than us North Americans. We first looked at a couple of infants with cleft lips and palates; the cleft palates involve more complicated surgery and left untreated leave the child exposed to infections that may enter the brain. Rick is in communication with visiting surgical teams of various disciplines that come from all over the world from time to time to perform surgeries, so in due course these children should get surgery as well.  Another adorable young boy around 4 years old, all hunched over with a severe TB spine, will be sent by Rick to Ghana for surgery by Dr. Boachie when his paperwork to get a passport is in order (when I returned with Rick to Mother Teresa a week later his passport had indeed been issued).  After the children's wing we went across the way to the women’s section and saw a woman with a thyroid tumor and a mass growing on her face that was causing her eye to protrude.  Very difficult If not impossible case to operate on; unfortunately this could be one of those cases without a solution.

Gary Segal, Dr. Hodes, Dr. Westerberg and Dr. Taylor

Next stop Cure Hospital.  This was a long, busy afternoon of numerous patient assessments without break for lunch.  The patients seen ran the gamut of conditions from unimaginably twisted spines, serious heart conditions, palates, and wasting neurological disorders, to tiny children with a combination of conditions further complicated by mental developmental issues.  Eking out a reasonable existence in Ethiopia is difficult enough for these people without these major health challenges, so I really pray that Rick can do his usual magic and come up with solutions for all of them.

But, of course, that is not possible.  Sadly, not all the cases have an apparent solution; though Rick may be considered a "Saint" or "Tzadik", he is not God.  On this particular afternoon at Cure there were three cases of infants or toddlers where Rick could not do anything to help.  In those situations Rick tries to gently break the devastating news to the mother or father accompanying the child, making a point of telling them he can see  they are a very good parent who loves and cares for their child very much, but that he is sorry there is nothing he can do to help.

One particularly sad case was that of an obviously concerned and caring father who brought in his sweet 2 year old girl; she had a misshapen elongated skull, protruding eyes, had gone blind in the last 5 months, and had cleft palate.  After much analysis and rumination, Rick gently explained that the man is a very good and caring father and should be proud of that, but that Rick cannot help; the father broke down in tears while telling Rick that he was his last hope. I couldn't help but cry then, as I do now writing this.  Dr. Taylor said to me at the time, how many times a day can you have your heart broken and still go on?  Somehow, Rick manages to deal with this every day, for over two decades now.

gift/thank you note from Firehiwot
The many people that Rick is able to help are filled with gratitude, and often want to give back by volunteering to help Rick with his patients.  It is nice to see, and I know the gesture means a lot to Rick  A young man named Makbel helping out this day and volunteering on an ongoing basis is a spine patient of Rick's that had surgery earlier this year.  Also on this particular day at Cure, a young woman named Firehiwot came to the clinic to demonstrate her translation skills, as she wants to volunteer as a translator.  She was a polio spine case that had successful surgery in Ghana through Rick and is currently studying social work and speaks good English. She brought with her a lovely figurine of a traditional Ethiopian woman and wrote a lovely thank you note to go with it.  It is comforting to know that, more often than not, acts of kindness beget other acts of kindness.

What creates a mass murderer leaving death and destruction on one hand, and a rare, extraordinarily altruistic and caring humanitarian like Dr. Rick Hodes who gives hope and heals lives on the other hand?  God only knows. Connecticut tragedy notwithstanding, as Dr. Boachie commented after his first visit to Mother Teresa Mission in Addis a couple of weeks ago, there are a lot of very good people in this world. In moments like these we must take solace in that.