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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

This Is a Soul is a moving biography of a physician that gives readers in the West a small window through which to view international medicine. The Beauty Bias digs deep into many of the sociological, financial and biological issues related to getting older and why any of this even matters. The Hundred-Foot Journey is a wonderful yarn, in part because of the exotic settings and non-academic dissertation of food, as well as characters who appeal in spite of their failings.


This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes
By Marilyn Berger
Published by William Morrow; Hardbound, 2010, 268 pp

Readers want to know that people are capable of selfless acts, that the hedonism and greed of this global moment have not destroyed the idea of helping others. The wild popularity of Greg Mortenson and David Relin’s Three Cups of Tea along with Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World attest to this interest in plain old fashioned doing good.

In the United States, discussions of medical care often center on high costs, unfeeling treatment, and a sense that there is insufficient “doing good.” Debate over the recently enacted health care reform package bears witness to the love-angst relationship of many patients and health care professionals. The physicians in the field with Doctors Without Borders (DWB), founded in 1971, may be among the few health care providers whose altruism and willingness to live outside of a Western comfort zone is repeatedly acknowledged by the media.

Unbeknownst to many American patients, however, a devoted and growing corps of doctors from the US volunteer their time and skills abroad, helping in medically underserved regions of the developing world. These physicians use up vacation time, and pay their airfare and living expenses. Many were, and are, sponsored by religious organizations. In recent years, the National Institutes of Health’s global health initiative, along with the Gates Foundation, has expanded the organizations through which our local docs have found opportunities to do good abroad performing surgery, attacking problems of infection, and making diagnoses. In addition, according to one American doctor, DWB “put opportunities on the map,” maintaining a level of integrity that has helped in the positive reception of foreign medical organizations, even in politically charged areas. Technology, too, has played an important role. Cell phones, the Internet, and Skype have expanded the flow of medical information including second opinions on diagnoses, making visiting physicians less anxious.

This Is a Soul is Marilyn Berger’s deft telling of the remarkable — and, yes, inspirational — story of Doctor Rick Hodes. Nearly thirty years ago Hodes, an American, went to Africa to help the victims of famine and genocide. Unlike most volunteer doctors whose domestic and professional responsibilities call them home, in 1990 Hodes gave up well equipped hospitals and suburban living, having found a home and calling in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Initially, he oversaw the health of thousands of Ethiopian Jews waiting to emigrate to Israel. This work, underwritten by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, introduced him to the long-term professional and diplomatic skills needed to practice in Addis.

Berger, a journalist, traveled to Ethiopia to shadow Hodes as he worked, and to interview him and some of his patients. She had been told about Hodes by friends in public health who admired his extraordinary efforts caring, in particular, for the sickest children in one of the world’s poorest countries. According to statistics published by several NGOs, Ethiopia has four million orphaned children. In Addis, she found a compassionate, driven, workaholic who not only ministered to hundreds of youngsters, but also took several into his home to live, adopting five of them.

Doctor and writer Abraham Verghese, who started his medical studies in Addis and now teaches at Stanford Medical School, identified for Berger one of the several aspects of Hodes’ unique qualities: “The very thing that stopped me from staying are Rick’s starting point — the lack of resources and the huge needs. Rick scratches and borrows and begs and gets what he needs.” The needs are, indeed, huge because Hodes, on his own and in collaboration with staff at Addis Ababa’s Mother Theresa clinic, has committed himself to helping children who require surgery that can not be performed locally. These include young people with cardiac problems as well as TB of the spine, a condition that compromises the lungs and leads to collapsed backs. Hodes not only finds surgeons in Ghana and the United States willing to volunteer their services, but also identifies individuals willing to open their homes to these children for post-op recovery and physical therapy.

In This Is a Soul Berger offers tight and compelling descriptions of the patients and their diagnoses. She also listens as Hodes parses difficult moral and ethical issues, writing about this with sensitivity. Hodes, she says, often turns to Hebrew texts and teachings for guidance. On his way to refugee encampments he has pondered “should I give priority to children (the future of the country), or perhaps to parents (if they died, their children would become orphans). Should I give each person fifteen minutes of time? Should I ignore the elderly or people who would take a long time to save?” He is influenced by a rabbi who counsels that he should not make choices: “Every life is precious;” critically ill patients should be taken in the order they are found. After confronting “overwhelming horror” at the Goma refugee compound, Hodes is deeply troubled that on a particular day his medical team has saved only a handful of lives. While he views this as “a drop in the vast ocean of refugees,” he draws solace from the Talmud which he recalls saying, “to save one life is to save an entire universe.”

Berger’s book is a moving biography of a physician that gives readers in the West a small window through which to view international medicine. It is also the story of a life-changing encounter between the author and a child she discovered on the streets of Addis Ababa, but that part of the book is a confection best indulged in the first person.

©2010 Jill Norgren for

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