by Susan Josephs
Dr. Leah Greenspan Hodor doesn’t know where her inner drive to help infants in Africa comes from. She just knows she has to make a difference. “Anytime you save a baby it’s a beautiful thing,” she says.
Three and a half years ago she travelled to Uganda to work in a rural clinic. The families she encountered lived simply and worked hard, but often didn’t have money available for health care, putting the lives of newborns at risk. That trip helped the 49-year-old Bethesda, Md.-based neonatologist define how she could best use her skills to help.
Greenspan Hodor subsequently co-founded Vital Health Africa (VHA), an organization dedicated to lowering neonatal mortality in the developing world. On VHA’s missions to Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana and Haiti, she has trained scores of doctors, nurses and midwives in techniques to save newborn babies in peril. “A large percentage of neonatal mortality is preventable if you have the proper training,” she says, adding, “And when you save one baby, you’re not only saving that baby’s life but potential generations.”
When she’s not traveling abroad or developing VHA’s medical and educational initiatives with her co-founder Janis Simon, Greenspan Hodor works 16-hour shifts in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at two community hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area. She recognized a long time ago that she doesn’t “have to do what everyone else is doing,” choosing to work part-time so she has the freedom to go to Africa five times a year. “I am gone 10 weeks a year developing the project,” she says.
"When you save one baby... you’re saving potential generations."
Greenspan Hodor grew up in Davie, Fla., where her New York-born parents had purchased a farm. Though farming wasn’t the family business (her father had a manufacturing company), she helped care for their animals and showed horses competitively.
Anti-Semitism punctuated her growing-up years. “There were Klu Klux Klan meetings down the street from us and neighbors wouldn’t let me come over to play with their
kids because I was Jewish,” she recalls. “But I always had a strong Jewish identity.”
Though she excelled in the sciences, Greenspan Hodor struggled to find a career path. Taking a break from college to work as a graphic artist in her dad’s business, she found a mentor in a nutritionist whom she befriended. “She took me under her wing and believed in me,” she says, of the relationship that inspired her to study Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University. She received further encouragement from a professor whom, she recalls, “told me that with all my questions and interests I should think about medical school.”
Greenspan Hodor spent three years at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York working as a Registered Dietitian specializing in Pediatric HIV/AIDS. That was where she first grasped the global impact of the disease. These experiences inspired her to go to medical school so she would be prepared to pursue her dream to provide health care for children in Africa. While studying medicine at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, she juggled her classes with spending time with her father, who died from pancreatic cancer during her second year.
Married to Dr. Jonathan Hodor, a perinatologist, Greenspan Hodor loves traveling to Africa with her daughters, now ages 13 and 7, through VHA missions and in her capacity as a board member of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. “I want them to understand the importance of doing for others,” she says of her children and the young volunteers that travel with her. “I also want my daughters to understand that being passionate about something and working hard is fulfilling and gives your life meaning.”