Fikru first learned about spine disease from an American doctor named Rick Hodes, who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for over 20 years. Dr. Hodes initially arrived in Ethiopia as a relief worker during the 1984 famine and has remained there ever since. He currently serves as Medical Director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Addis Ababa. His work with severely disabled children, including those with spine diseases, is the subject of the HBO documentary Making the Crooked Straight as well as a book by journalist Marilyn Berger entitled This is a Soul.
Fikru met Dr. Hodes last year at a Thanksgiving dinner in Addis Ababa hosted by mutual friends – a couple from Orlando who are temporarily living in Ethiopia and are collectors of his paintings. “My friends Donald and Barbara Prearson first introduced Dr. Hodes and I at their home,” Fikru told Tadias Magazine. “Rick said he knew about my work from the displays in the house.” He added: “During the dinner Rick told me what he did as a Doctor in Ethiopia, and I was impressed.” Dr. Hodes showed Fikru photos of his spine disease patients. “I can probably say they were the most shocking images I ever saw in my life,” Fikru said of the photographs.
“Spine disease is quite common,” Dr. Hodes said in a recent interview with Tadias. “In America, at least 3% of the population has scoliosis, which is a spinal curvature. There is no data from Ethiopia, but it is quite likely that the rate is at least the same. We also have neuromuscular disease such as cerebral palsy and old polio leading to scoliosis.” Dr. Hodes said he receives at least 200 new spine patients a year. About two-third have scoliosis, which causes an S-shaped spine, and one-third have Pott’s Disease, which is tuberculosis of the spine. Without the possibility of spine surgery, Ethiopian patients often have progressive disease which may lead to paralysis and breathing difficulties. Many of Dr. Hodes’ patients have lost well over 50% of their lung function due to the lungs being compressed by twisted spines. “I work closely with an organization called FOCOS and raise money to send my patients to them in Accra, Ghana for surgery,” Dr Hodes said. “It costs me about $18,000 per surgery.” He added: “My overall goal is to [build] a hospital in Ethiopia where this surgery can be done, and to train Ethiopians to do these operations.”
The conversation with Dr. Hodes and the photos lingered in Fikru’s head long after the dinner. “It was painful to watch and the images stuck in my mind,” Fikru said. “I felt shame that I was not doing enough to help my people who desperately need my help while foreigners are doing a great job to save Ethiopian lives.” He added: “When I left the Prearson’s home that night I told Rick I will do something to help and contribute to save the children.”
“Weeks later when Mr. Noel Cunningham of The Cunningham Foundation came to Addis from Denver, I invited him to my studio and told him my plan to donate my painting to fund the surgeries,” Fikru continued. “I had estimated it to be around $24,000 but I thought they could get a better price for it at an auction.”
“We greatly appreciate your talent and your generosity in donating this painting,” Noel Cunningham, President of the Cunningham Foundation, said in a letter to Fikru. “In fact, your painting has raised money to provide complete medical and surgical care to 3 Ethiopian youth with spine disease.”
Dr. Hodes remembers meeting Fikru at the Thanksgiving dinner. “Fikru was very taken by the strength and the difficulties of life of my spine patients.” he said. “He has since met several of them, and he had a very good idea of the great difficulties they have. He would call me at least twice a week.”
Regarding the painting, Fikru said he came up with the concept a year ago at his Addis home-studio, which he designed.
“I talked to Rick Hodes this morning and he told me that the children will go abroad for surgery on Sunday November 6,” he said. “I will go to Bole airport to see them off.”