We asked some of the shoeshine boys nearby if they knew where we could find the child. They directed us to his neighborhood around the corner, but there was no sign of him there either. While my heart sank, Berhanu found a young man named Yeshetilla—which means "the great protector"—whose brother had been treated by Rick. Berhanu asked him to call if he saw the boy. We didn't have to explain whom we were talking about—everyone in the neighborhood seemed to know him.
We drove back to the clinic down broad avenues divided by medians full of sturdy weeds and passed flocks of goats being herded to the slaughter and donkeys with their burden of freshcut firewood. Addis is a fascinating city, but I was now too edgy to focus on the scenery; I was worried that we'd lost "my" boy—for that's how I'd started to think of him. As we were pulling up to the clinic, Berhanu's cell phone rang.
"That's him," I said, practically jumping up and down like an excited kid.
As Berhanu listened to the caller, a gentle smile spread across his face.
"How did you know?" he said.
Rick steered the Suzuki back to the appointed spot, and there he was, standing on a side street with Yeshetilla, ready to squeeze into the car. The boy did not hesitate for a moment, almost eager to set off with a bunch of strangers, and not just strangers, white foreigners. He was still wearing the same dirty green T-shirt, and now I noticed that the worn soles of his sneakers were flapping loosely from the tops. He struggled mightily to keep the dark jeans he wore from falling down. He said his name was Danny—as with most Ethiopians, last names don't matter—and that he lived on the street. Yeshetilla told us—only somewhat correctly—that each night Danny paid the equivalent of ten cents for a place on the floor of a video store—nothing more than a flophouse—with about twenty older vagrants who smoked and chewed khat and where lice and fleas and rats feasted on all of them. He also said that Danny was about seven, maybe even eight, but not four. So the first diagnosis was easy: in addition to the hump on his back, he was suffering from malnutrition.
We returned to the clinic once again, where the first thing Rick did was to ask Danny to stand in front of a bare white wall so he could take his photograph, just as he does with all of his patients. In addition to a profile of his back—which was even more severely deformed than I realized when it was covered by his shirt—Rick wanted a picture of his face. He told the boy he had to smile.
"Doctors always ask why I send photos, why I don't just send the x-rays and blood studies," Rick said. "I want them to know this is a human being," he explained. "This isn't just a back. This is a soul."
Those photos are sent along with the lab work to Rick's contacts around the world; some will offer to perform surgery, some will confirm his diagnoses and provide advice on proper levels of medication. Others will send money.
Once Rick finished taking the pictures, he reached for his stethoscope, the only piece of medical equipment he has (if you don't count the Toyota key he uses to roll back eyelids and check for trachoma), and listened to Danny's lungs. He then tells the boy he's been having chest pains and puts the stethoscope in Danny's ears. Would the boy please check his heart?
"You're the doctor; I'll be the patient," Rick told him.
This got a big smile. It works every time.
Then, holding Danny by the shoulder with his free hand,