“A powerful, important book for our age.”
—Abraham Verghese, author Cutting For Stone
Passionately written by journalist Marilyn Berger, This is a Soul is the moving and inspiring story of Dr. Rick Hodes, an American doctor living in Ethiopia, who has devoted his life to caring for the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor. Dr. Hodes’s life and work makes for fascinating reading, especially for those who have been profoundly touched by Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.
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About the Author
Marilyn Berger is a contributing writer to the New York Times. She was previously a diplomatic correspondent for Newsday and the Washington Post, and was the United Nations correspondent for ABC News and the White House correspondent for NBC News. She was the moderator on the public affairs program The Advocates and anchored WNET's City Edition. She was the director of programs and public affairs for the Council on Foreign Relations. Her articles have been published in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and New York magazine.
Table of Contents
1 This Is a Soul 1
2 A Normal Doctor? 19
3 To Save a Single Soul 43
4 An Act of Kindness 63
5 One Good Deed Leads to Another 97
6 I'll Take the Kids 115
7 My Son Has Been Reborn 135
8 If I Had a Hammer 149
9 Everybody Goes to Rick's Place 167
10 No Use Taking a Picture of a Skeleton 205
11 I'm Here and They're Not 219
12 My Lucky Day 241
The Story Behind the Story of
This is a Soul
by Marilyn Berger
I had never had any intention of writing a book, any book -- until I met Rick Hodes.
It all started when my college roommate asked me to join her for lunch. She had just been to Ethiopia where she had met an extraordinary person who had dedicated his life to the care of grievously sick children and adults who no one else would try to save. She asked if I knew anyone who would write about him. As if in an involuntary response, my right hand shot up.
Immediately, I saw the story of a selfless man, an American doctor who had given up what would have been a prosperous life in the New York suburb where he grew up and devoted his entire being to taking care of the sickest of the sick in one of the world's poorest countries. Not only did he minister to the sick but he took many of them into his own house--and officially adopted five sons.
Not many months later, I was on a plane to Addis Ababa. I arrived at 4:00 am and hoped to sleep the next morning. But I found a note under my hotel door. It was from Rick. "At 9:00 am, I'm picking up eight patients at the airport who are returning from surgery in Gondar," it said. "Do you want to come?"
No reporter could turn that down, so I dragged myself into the hotel lobby where he had suggested he meet me. Our first meeting was promising – he was relaxed, funny and full of updates about his kids. When we got to the airport, he said something that let me know instantly what kind of person I was dealing with: "Seeing these people after surgery is like going to heaven." His heart sings and his spirit is literally lifted when he succeeds in helping someone.
That was the beginning of many long days I spent following the footsteps of Dr. Rick Hodes as he saw patients at Mother Teresa's clinic, gave them money to survive (the only doctor who pays his patients), and arranged for them to travel to other countries where they received life-saving surgery and other forms of medical care. I also spent time at his home in Addis that is crowded with the many children he has taken in, fifteen in addition to the five he adopted. I also got to see how he finds ways of giving hope to people who live with the fear they will die soon.
With all of that, there is nothing sanctimonious about the man. He is good company, iconoclastic, a practical joker; he's an Orthodox Jew who leads everyone in singing "If I Had a Hammer" at his Friday evening Sabbath celebrations and works on Saturday because saving a life is more important than adhering to ritual...
I am an old school reporter who spent many years covering foreign affairs at The Washington Post, and later I wrote lengthy biographies of the world's eminent men and women – for example Ronald Reagan and Boris Yeltsin -- which became obituaries for The New York Times. I was trained never to let my emotions or my prejudices impinge on my reporting and never to get involved. But this particular biography set me on a new trajectory. I got involved, and so deeply that my life was transformed by the story I was writing. While I was in Addis Ababa doing the reporting for this book, I was walking down one of the city's main streets, where I came upon a small boy with long dusty eyelashes, crouched in the middle of the sidewalk. His hand was held up for any coins that might come his way. He looked to be about four years old, and his back was humped out like a pyramid, a sign that he had TB of the spine, precisely the problem Rick treats and cures. I couldn't wait to tell Rick about the boy, and together he and I set out to find the child. Within a few hours, he was in Rick's clinic. The boy told us his name is Danny.
Rick examined him, turned to me and said, "Marilyn, you've just saved a life." I was nearing the end of my reporting and soon went home while Rick found a bed for Danny in the Mother Teresa clinic and went about saving his life with medications for the tuberculosis. Rick became as taken with his new young patient as I was. Now and then, he would invite Danny to his home, and eventually the boy began to living with Rick and other kids there. Within a few months, when Danny was cured of disease, Rick sent him for surgery to correct the deformity in his back that threatened his life.
It is said that once you save a life, you're responsible for it. And, at long last, I was ready for it. For much of my life -- and partly because I had to travel so much for my work -- I was a person who wouldn't even have a plant in the house because it required too much of my attention. But now I heard myself asking Rick if he might bring Danny to New York so that he could learn a little English while he recovered from his operation.