Photo by Andrew Dickinson.

One Good Act Leads to Another: The Meaningful Work of Dr. Rick M. Hodes


By Kevyn Janicek | Biology Major

Dr. Rick M. Hodes stands, raises his hands towards the beaming sun and squints at the X-ray that determines the fate of a 7-year-old boy. Measuring the curvature of Sisay Gudeta’s spine to be 120 degrees, Dr. Hodes knows that he must help the boy (Siddiqui). With 60 other patients lined up outside Mother Teresa’s Clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, his day has just begun. But he cannot help everyone. He must pick and choose which patients will live.

Bored with the usual teenage experience at Syosset High School, Hodes boarded the Long Island Rail Road and traveled to New York City every Saturday. Eventually, he found his way to Henry Street Settlement House where he began tutoring under-privileged children. Shortly after, he started to raise money for the hungry in Biafra, Nigeria after seeing unforgettable images of starving Nigerian children with distended bellies. He fundraised by himself, going door to door in his neighborhood (Berger 21). Participating in these events began his path of self-sacrifice among the destitute.

Hodes, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography from Middlebury College and a Medical Doctorate from the University of Rochester, never dreamed of becoming a rich doctor. Instead, he has come to be one of the most famous doctors, known for serving others. However, as Outliers: Story of Success author Malcolm Gladwell writes, “people don’t rise from nothing” (19). Hodes’ special opportunities, ability to turn disadvantages into advantages, and embodiment of the idea of meaningful work leads him to be more successful than any number of wealthy doctors in the United States.

Hodes’ special opportunities, ability to turn disadvantages into advantages, and embodiment of the idea of meaningful work leads him to be more successful than any number of wealthy doctors in the United States.

Hodes decided he would major in Geography after dreaming of the stories of Albert Schweitzer and Thomas Dooley (Berger 22). The adventures that these two idols experienced called him to lead a similar lifestyle and one that would end up changing his life forever.

Studying geography caused Hodes to do research and on one such occasion, he sought help from Dr. Charles Houston. The research project entailed studying the effects of climate change on heart disease. Hodes walked into Dr. Houston’s office at the University of Vermont to begin their work together. A step into the office and he knew that he was going to get along with Dr. Houston very well. They shared the same passion of being adventurers and somehow Dr. Houston had taken his escapades into studying medicine (Berger 22). The chance meeting between a sophomore undergraduate and an adventurous doctor led to a relationship that would eventually encourage Hodes to become a doctor. The special opportunity that he experienced gave him his future.

Emaciation. Starvation. Ribs jutting out of skin. Death. Hodes viewed all of this from his five-week volunteer stint during the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. While studying at Rochester Medical School, he had a five-week break and used the time to travel and volunteer instead of relaxing on vacation. He returned home to Baltimore — thousands of miles away from famine stricken Ethiopia. He soon realized his desires to be a doctor lied in the responsibility of caring for patients with the same desperate need he saw in Ethiopia. He applied for a Fulbright grant — a U.S. Student Grant that would allow him to further his studies — to go anywhere in Africa. Anywhere, except Ethiopia since he had already been there. As it turns out the Fulbright Organization decided to place him in Ethiopia due to his previous experience there. He went back to Ethiopia for two and a half years where he taught medical students and oversaw patients in Addis Ababa (Berger 39). The unique opportunity he obtained from the Fulbright Organization eventually led him to his life mission. He recognized the need in Addis Ababa and couldn’t stay away.

Hodes seized the opportunities that were offered to him. He made a choice to pursue these chances which eventually led to his life calling. He chose these instances, but that does not mean that he had a lot of options. Not a lot of doctors could help an undergraduate geology major with research on climate change affecting heart disease. Also, the Fulbright Organization did not really give him a choice other than Ethiopia. Limited choices turned into the special opportunities that Hodes recieved. This parallels to the TED Talk by Barry Schwartz, who examines the effect of the amount of options given to someone on their overall satisfaction levels. He believes that with less choice, people are more satisfied. In Dr. Rick’s case this proves true. He had less options, and the choices he made helped him lead a more satisfying life. These choices, these events, brought him to his life’s work of helping others.

The whole idea of special opportunities comes from the correlation between birthdays and professional hockey players. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the opportunity that hockey players have according to their birthdate. Professional hockey players with birthdays in January, February and March outnumber any other month. This results from the cutoff date for hockey teams being January first. Players born in January now have an advantage since they will be the oldest and therefore the biggest players on the ice. If they prove to be the best on the ice then they will get more opportunities to play on the best teams and develop into better players than those who do not get the opportunities (Gladwell 24–25). The special opportunities that hockey players born in January receive directly correlate with the special opportunities that Dr. Hodes received.

Without the opportunity to work with Dr. Houston, Dr. Hodes would have never become a doctor. Always having his mind set on a world full of adventure, the thought of obtaining his medical doctorate never crossed his mind. With a relationship formed, the possibility took root in him. Becoming a doctor not only developed into a possibility but flourished into a reality with the encouragement from Dr. Houston.

By obtaining the Fulbright grant, Hodes continued his work in Ethiopia and revived his passion for helping others. Seeing the curved backs and the hopeless state of desperate Ethiopian children, he couldn’t help but fall in love with the place. The experience that the Fulbright Organization provided him led him to success today as a doctor in Ethiopia.

Hodes entered the leprosy hospital, knowing that Madefro Alemo resided in the bed at the end of the room. He leaned down, level to the thin thirteen-year-old boy afflicted with both leprosy and tuberculosis. He whispered that Madefro would travel to Israel today. Although this may not seem like a big deal to some, this provided huge news for Madefro. In 1991, Semitism still wrecked-havoc on the Ethiopian Jews. With political unrest and new people stepping into power, the country plunged into high risk of famine and a life-expectancy of a scant 41 years. Being highly discriminated against, Jewish Ethiopians would be among the last to receive jobs, food, and health care. This caused the Joint Distribution Committee(JDC), the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, to step in and bargain with the government to allow Jews to flee to Israel. At last, the government agreed and permitted the emigration of Jewish people. This included one stipulation though: they could only depart on one day or they would lose their chances to emigrate forever (Berger 45–50).

Because Hodes identifies as Jewish, the JDC offered him a position to help in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Among the duties of health education, nutritional support, and general clinical care, Hodes was given the task to export seven to eight patients from multiple hospitals to the awaiting planes that took fleeing Ethiopians to Israel. Among the patients was Madefro (Berger 48–50).

In Ethiopia, being Jewish proved a disadvantage since Jewish people were discriminated against. Dr. Hodes used this to his advantage by helping fellow Jews when victimization against them led the death rate to be 39 a month (Berger 46). He used his religious views and background as a doctor to help people, to be successful at doing good and providing hope for the hopeless.

Turning disadvantages into advantages connects to the movie Moneyball in which Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Team, must construct a competitive team for 2002 after multiple star players leave. When drafting a team, he knows that using the usual method of trying to recruit players will not work since he has a limited budget. He cannot compete with the big teams who can offer four times as much as he can. He makes the comparison that his team is like the “last dog at the bowl or the runt of the litter” (Miller). Instead, he has to think differently and ends up using a statistical method to pick players that would not necessarily be desired. Using his disadvantages to his advantage, he thought differently and ended up with a record setting winning streak of 20 games.

Much like Billy Beane, Dr. Rick Hodes thought differently and decided to help those in disadvantaged situations.

The study done on the big-fish-little-pond-effect further emphasizes turning disadvantages into advantages. This study essentially discovered that students do worse when attending a school where average ability of students is high; whereas, those same students do better when attending a school where average ability of students is lower (Marsh 319). Attending an Ivy League school, for example, is considered an advantage to most. In actuality, it might not be. This study predicts that students will have lower academic concepts when attending a school of this caliber. Attending a lower ranking secondary school could be considered a disadvantage. This study determined that a student with the same academic ability would do better in a lower quality school.

This connects to Dr. Hodes because he is essentially a big-fish-in-a-little-pond. During the time he helped out with Jewish emigration to Israel from Ethiopia, he was the only doctor in that area working with the JDC. In fact, he worked as a doctor in a place where there was one doctor for every 40,000 people (Miller 130). He turned his disadvantage of being Jewish and his presumed disadvantage of not being the best doctor in the world into helping thousands of people. In America, a big pond, he might not have been as successful; whereas, in Ethiopia he was valued for his attributes and became successful. His disadvantages were actually not disadvantages at all.

Hodes walked into Black Lion Hospital in Addis in 1994 to show around a visiting physician. He ran into a nurse he knew and asked her if there were any cases he could help with. The nurse directed him to the young cardiac ward to a 12-year-old boy with rapid breathing and an X-ray depicting a heart twice the size of a normal, healthy heart. The young boy was named Bewoket. Hodes determined that Bewoket suffered from Rheumatic Fever, a disease uncommon in the United States that forced him into heart failure and onto his deathbed. As it turns out, the medical staff at the hospital had actually been giving Bewoket the wrong medications (Berger 64–67). By adjusting the medications, he went from near death to being discharged to Mother Teresa’s Mission. There, he had everything he needed but not everything he wanted. He had become attached to Dr. Hodes and asked Hodes if he could live with him. Dr. Hodes thought it would be easier to have Bewoket at the house and so he offered him a place to stay, a bed to lay in, and eventually a family to be surrounded by (Berger 97–98). The story of Bewoket explains how Dr. Hodes began taking in children to live with him. Now, he has many children staying in his home including the 5 he adopted from Ethiopia. They compromise a unique family.

Bewoket is an example of why Hodes does what he does. He treated a patient, saved his life, and created a loving relationship with him. This occurrence with Bewoket made him thankful for “an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of man… [it] set him on a new trajectory in which one thing led to another” (Berger 100). One thing led to a lifetime of self-sacrifice and meaningful work which has caused him to be more successful in the long run.

Self-sacrifice and meaningful work both connect to the act of helping others. But how does helping others affect who Dr. Hodes is and what his future goals are? According to a study done by Joana Duarte and Josè Pinto-Gouveia, the act of helping impacts a person hugely. This study, composed of 161 university students over 10 weeks, measured the association between interpersonal goals (self-image goals and compassionate goals) and depression, anxiety and stress level. The result of this experiment was that when students had compassionate goals, their depression, anxiety and stress levels declined. On the other hand, when students focused on self-image goals, these factors increased. Compassionate goal become “associated with a sense of clarity and connectedness, promote fewer conflicts with others and increase positive emotions” (Duarte 820). By being compassionate and helping others, students were happier in the end and had a better psychological impact over time.

Dr. Hodes exemplifies this study. In doing meaningful work at Mother Teresa’s Mission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he becomes more content and successful. Housing orphaned children and essentially giving lives back to desperate cases defines compassionate goals. By encountering Bekowet, his life turned into one giant compassionate goal of producing change in people’s lives. The meaningful work that Dr. Hodes exhibits every day delineates his success. In an interview with Fanny Kiefer on Studio Four, Hodes mentions how “it’s an honor to treat them… when I see the dignity and the difficulties they live with day in and day out it makes me stronger and it makes them stronger” (Kiefer). The honor, the strength and the happiness that he gets from being a doctor to these Ethiopian children creates the meaningful work that results in success.

With 60 patients still waiting for Dr. Hodes, he knows that he must make a decision. Sisay will receive the life-saving treatment for a disease that would have ended up killing him before he reached the age of 14. The hope that Dr. Hodes gives to Sisay and many other patients transpires due to the special opportunities that he received in his life, turning his disadvantages into advantages and dedicating his life to meaningful work. Saving lives and being a source of hope makes Dr. Hodes successful. With his rigorous everyday work, he confronts future doctors with the realities of healthcare in countries outside the United States and exposes the possibility that anyone can change these realities. To Hodes, “saving one life is like saving an entire world” (Miller 135). By doing this, Hodes embodies success and gives a 7-year-old boy, as well as countless other children in Ethiopia, what they desire most: a chance to live.

Works Cited:

Bascom, Tim. Personal Interview. 26 Feb. 2016.

Berger, Marilyn. This is a Soul: An American Doctor’s Remarkable Mission in Ethiopia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.

Duarte, Joana, Pinto-Gouveia, Josè. “Focusing on Self or Others has Different Consequences for Psychological Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Distinct Interpersonal Goals.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 34.9 (2015): 809–825. Online. 05 05 2016.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce.” TED Talk. TED, Feb 2005. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

— -. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2013. Print

— -. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.

Hodes, Rick M. Interview. Studio Four with Fanny Kiefer. Shaw TV. Channel 4, Vancouver, 24 Jan. 2012. TV.

Marsh, Herbert W., Trautwein, Ulrich, Ludtke, Oliver, Hau, K. T., O’Mara, Alison J., and Craven, Rhonda G. “The Big-Fish-Little-Pond-Effect Stands Up to Critical Scrutiny: Implications for Theory, Methodology, and Future Research.” Educational Psychology Review (2008): 319–347. Online.

Miller, Kenneth. “Don’t Say No.” Reader’s Digest. Dec 2008: 128- 137. Print.

Moneyball. Dir. Bennett Miller. Perf. Brad Pitt, and Jonah Hill. Columbia Pictures, 2011. Film.

Siddiqui, Faiz. “Saving Sisay.” News Net Nebraska. U of Nebraska. 31 Oct 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2016.

Swartz, Barry. “Paradox of Choice.” TED Talk. TED, Jul 2005. Web. 1 Feb 2016.

Photo by Conrad Engstrom.


Kevyn Janicek, a sophomore from Loveland, Colo., would one day like to work as a missionary Physician Assistant. Janicek likes reading the Book Thief on lazy Saturdays, shopping for Fall boots, and eating cinnamon applesauce.


I’ve learned to forgive and move on.

When fellow classmates bring chocolate chip pancakes to class it makes the day better.

Attending Bethel University doesn’t mean that I can’t win the Noble Prize.

No matter who you are, you can bring hope to someone.

Even when I appear to be a David, an underdog, I can still defeat the giant. I can still succeed.

Having someone model the life you desire makes the possibility of leading a similar life even more real.

There are people out there suffering. We can help.

Meaningful work pushes you towards your dreams and towards the life you’ve always wanted.

Life is full of opportunities — take them.

Writing can be fun. It can take you on adventures, turn research into a heartfelt story and change a life. College Writing helped me realize that my dream is within grasp, it is an actual possibility. Learning about our heroes inspired me to succeed in the life I want. Success isn’t just for those who are the best and brightest.

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