Africa links doctors on mission to heal

Africa links doctors on mission to heal

Mendham pair to host JDC’s medical director for Jews in Ethiopia

Working with the Growing Hearts of Africa foundation, Dr. Michael Ingber treats patients in various countries and helps send other doctors to the continent, too.
Working with the Growing Hearts of Africa foundation, Dr. Michael Ingber treats patients in various countries and helps send other doctors to the continent, too.

Usually, Dr. Michael Ingber’s surgical world intersects with that of Dr. Rick Hodes in hard-scrabble impoverished clinics in Africa. But on Saturday, May 10, Ingber will welcome Hodes to a very different setting — a fund-raiser at his home in Mendham.

Ingber and his wife, Dr. Lori Ingber, together with other family members, are hosting the third annual gala for Growing Hearts of Africa, the foundation they established in 2010, which provides medical care and educational facilities. 

Hodes, with whom they have worked on a number of cases, will be the guest speaker.

An American who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for over 20 years, Hodes, an Orthodox Jew, is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s medical director for Ethiopia. In that capacity he also supervised health care of the Ethiopian Jews preparing to immigrate to Israel. He has also served as senior consultant at a Catholic mission helping destitute patients with heart disease, spine disease, and cancer, and he has worked with refugees in Rwanda, Zaire, Tanzania, Somalia, and Albania.

Hodes was honored as ABC’s “Person of the Week” in 2010 and was selected in 2007 as a finalist for CNN Heroes. His work is the subject of the HBO documentary Making the Crooked Straight and is portrayed in a new book, This Is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes by Marilyn Berger.

Growing Hearts has financed treatment for seven young patients from Hodes’s organization in Ethiopia, sending them to hospitals in Ghana and India — the most cost-effective and medically adequate options available for them. It has also brought one child to the United States for treatment.

For Ingber, whose family are members of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, the African connection began when he was doing his medical residency in Zambia. In the capital, Lusaka, he saw adequate facilities and skilled staff, but further out in the countryside the situation was very different. “In a country with 11 to 12 million people, there were five urologists,” he told NJJN. “People in the rural areas had so little chance of getting the care they required. I really saw how needed my work was. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

While building his urology and urogynecology career in the United States, he kept that mission in mind. Now practicing with the Center for Specialized Women’s Health, at offices in Whippany and Denville, he also serves as an assistant clinical professor of urology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. In 2006, he started traveling to Africa to help patients there and organizing for others to do likewise. Three years later, Lori’s sister Ilyssa Maisano started her own educational effort, raising funds to build schools in Ethiopia, where she is working with JDC, and in other countries. The following year, they merged their undertakings to form Growing Hearts of Africa. Lori and their other sister, Jennifer Zairi, are also actively involved. All of them live in Mendham, where the foundation is based.

Ingber tries to get back to Africa about once a year. “I’ve done about 150 surgeries there,” he said. The foundation has also sent dozens of other doctors, and medical supplies. They have performed over 200 urology and gynecology operations on people in Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Uganda. A major focus has been the treatment of vesicovaginal fistulas, holes that can develop in the bladders of women who undergo prolonged labor and that left untreated can ruin their lives.

Working in poor, remote communities can be grueling. “There have been days when we’ve had no electricity,” Ingber said, “when our light source was the windows and when the sun went down, we had to stop. Here in the U.S., we use sutures so freely; I’ve been in places where they had only one suture to use on a patient.”

Ingber takes pride in their approach. “Some of the other charities spend a chunk on things like advertising,” he said. “With us, 96 percent of what we raise goes directly to the work. All our advertising is donated.”

Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, he said, his family was “always very philanthropic.” That spirit and the sense of international connection has remained a guiding theme. Lori Ingber founded and heads an adoption business,, and they have two adopted children themselves, from South Korea, in addition to their two birth children. Both of Lori’s sisters have also adopted children.

The gala is a three-hour event in their home, with silent auctions for items that range from trips to the Bahamas and Disney World to season tickets to sports events. Last year’s event raised $200,000, and they are hoping to match or exceed that. For more information, and to RSVP, go to

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