The Power of ONE

“The most important lessons of my life came through mentorship. At every junction in my life, I’ve had someone who took interest in me and mentored me. It’s wisdom to identify those willing to make their hindsight your foresight. To find people who are willing to give you an honest feedback and help you create & develop a trust based relationship is priceless”.

~Dr. Senait Fisseha, Director of International Program, “Buffet Foundation~

Senait was born in a privileged family with 12 siblings and 10th in the birth order. When she was born, Pompidou was the President of France. Her father, looking at this chubby infant thought of the French President hence her nickname “Pompid”.  Pompidou left behind a legacy of able governance and public service. Senait’s father who died while Senait was quite young professed this intelligent and kind soul would someday make her country proud. Pompid or Dr. Senait is determined to change the way a nation treats women’s health and as an OB/GYN and a lawyer, she lets her nickname speak for itself.

Senait left Ethiopia right after high school and did her college, medical school, law school, residency and fellowship in the US. She has had 17 years of schooling after high school. She says she is a lifelong student well equipped for long term planning and strategy, but also tells all is about delayed gratification that helped her stay the course throughout her professional and personal life. She attributes part of her success to the resiliency and the sturdiness to wait and wait until she finds what she thinks should be. Her colleagues say a perfect word to define this fast moving and intelligent woman is “tenacious”.

By training a physician and a lawyer so she could advocate for women’s reproductive right, she specialized in maternal health with particular focus in infertility and reproductive health issues.   She has been serving as a full professor and chief of the division in University of Michigan but just switched career from academics to philanthropy. Senait is the director in international program at the “Buffet Foundation” overseeing reproductive health programing and strategy in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Her responsibility entails reading reports, reviewing grant proposals, meeting regularly with her team. A third of her time, she travels for program evaluation, assessing opportunities, grant making, consulting, evaluating, and monitoring. From working 18-20 hours a day as an implementer and a foot soldier, she finds her relatively calm new profession as a welcome change but had a hard time adjusting to being a strategist. When asked why the switch from academics to philanthropy, she says this is how she makes a significant impact in shaping women’s health globally.

Senait grew up in the turmoil Derg Era. She lost a brilliant and courageous brother who studied in the States but came back to join the movement against the Derg and the unfortunate happened. He was imprisoned, tortured and killed. As a result she lost both parents and three siblings left in prison, one as young as ten and the 2nd oldest who could have taken care of the children. Senait understood deep inside we all were victims and the best revenge would be to reduce poverty. She always, from early on aspired to be a doctor. She chose to work on women, fight for their reproductive rights; grant their freedom to choose whether to have kids and to plan their family. She has achieved an unsurpassed feat and the Ethiopian government is very appreciative. Dr. Senait is instrumental in fulfilling the MOH plan to make St. Paul Hospital center of Excellence in maternal health. She did accomplish that and then much more.

Senait tells her story: “Before I left Ethiopia, I was accepted to medical school and attended for three months. Very early on I had decided I was going to be part of my community. I knew when I left I wanted to come back. I had also seen what it meant not to have access to health care. During the Derg, I witnessed a lot of tragedies. I had to be part of the Ethiopian community that I left behind.”

Senait as a medical student became a founding member of Ethiopian N. American Health Professional Association.  That gave her an earlier exposure to come and volunteer and to form a strong relationship with the health care community. Dr. Kebede Oli, the dean of the medical school at Black Lion at the time, saw how motivated and committed she was to work but he also realized she was just a student. So as one of the many mentors in her life, Dr. Kebede advised her to go back, focus on her studies, do well and come back. He told her this will always wait for her. She took his message to heart.   Sure enough, Senait finished medical school and started OBGYN residency at the University of Michigan and started to collaborate with Black Lion Hospital. She found another role model, Dr. Zufan, a female OB/GYN who was the dean of AAU Medical School, who was very accessible and made things a little easier for this young and very ambitious resident.

For the next 5-6 years, Senait came on average two to three times a year. She’d use her professional development funds buying a few relevant books and formed relationship which earned her the trust of the highest decision makers to become part of the health care community here in Ethiopia.

About Eight years ago, Ethiopia started experimenting with medical education and opened St. Paul Hospital as a new medical school with very innovative curriculum to produce doctors who would meet the health care needs of Ethiopia. The Minister of Health, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, asked Senait if her University would consider supporting St. Paul specifically in maternal health to create Center of excellence and to share this vision with the University of Michigan where Dr. Senait was affiliated with.  The dean and department of Chair were committed and Senait negotiated with the University that a significant part of her time would be spent in Ethiopia to realize that vision. March 2011 she started spending a week in a month at St. Paul.

At the time, the Provost of St. Paul was Dr.  Mesfin Araya, who in Senait’s opinion, is a very profoundly committed, kind, and compassionate physician who embodies the best characteristics of what a doctor should be and Dr. Lia Tadesse, Vice Provost for medical services, a remarkable OBGYN , who demonstrated servant-leadership . It was meeting Lia and seeing how young she was and how she has committed her life to public service…that made Senait realize she just couldn’t continue just coming here volunteering and leave but she really needed to engage and engage deeply and decided to strengthen the OB/GYN department by starting training.

Senait recalls that four years ago there was only one OB/GYN faculty, Dr. Abdulfatah and 18 mid wives at this hospital. With Dr. Abdulfatah, they invited colleagues from Canada, and reviewed OBGYN training curriculums from the US, the UK, as well as invite national experts from Black Lion and other med schools in Ethiopia and developed a competency based OBGYN Residency curriculum and launched a residency training program a year later. In short four years, the faculty number grew to 15 OB/GYN and St. Paul now has best and largest women’s health institution in the country, with sub specialty training in High Risk Obstetrics/Maternal Fetal Medicine, Urogynecology, Family Planning & Infertility, and soon to start Gynecologic Oncology. .

Based on the need and interest, they realized strengthening maternal health by creating one department wasn’t going to cut it. With Drs. Mesfin’s and Lia’s vision and strong support from the new Provost, Dr. Zerihun Abebe , University of Michigan, MOH and other donors they started soliciting funding. They received significant funding from a Foundation and smaller funding from CDC Ethiopia/AIHA/Twinning Center. The fund helped establish OB/GYN post graduate training program and expanded to internal medicine, surgery, radiology, strengthened medical education, sub specialty training in high risk pregnancy maternal fetal medicine, and now St. Paul has surpassed that and did the first  renal transplant in September 2015.  Senait remembers conversation with colleagues where some say “how could you start renal transplant in a country where there is no basic service”? Senait sees the need for transplant and other advanced services as much as she sees the need for screening mammography and routine maternal care. Renal disease affects all: men and women, young, new born, pregnant women. Chronic Dialysis is very expensive (5,000-6,000 Birr) per week of treatment. Renal transplant is the most cost effective interventions. So unless as a society we say it is ok for those with kidney failure who cannot afford dialysis to die, we have to make such services available, argues Senait.    “We have needs for family planning, maternal care, and we have need for transplant, IVF and cardiac surgery. We have competing interests and limited resources, and sometimes have to make tough decisions. But just because we are in a country with limited resources, it doesn’t mean that our doctors don’t need to advance their training and practice cutting edge medicine and our community is not deserving of the best available care”.  In addition to addressing the health care needs of the community, creating opportunity for advanced training is going to keep doctors in the country Dr. Senait asserts. St. Paul has become the Mecca for training future physicians. Significant change in physician migration outside the country has been observed because doctors now have an opportunity to get advanced training within the country.  St. Paul is going to start an In Vitro Fertilization program, probably the first in the country in 2016. In maternal health, in addition to routine maternal health, the hospital already offers services for infertility including intrauterine insemination, high risk pregnancy, genetic and ultrasound screening for those with advanced maternal age, pregnancy termination, family planning and contraceptive counseling, cervical cancer screening and minimally invasive surgery including laparoscopy. With such highly specialized medicine, St. Paul truly has become the center of Excellence for women’s health.

Dr. Senait attributes the success of St. Paul hospital programs to the visionary leadership and finding people who made work seemed like play. It also allowed her to be part of this community that she yearned to be part of — all the professional societies of the Ethiopian health community.

While building St. Paul as a hub of center of excellence, the Reproductive Health Training has been expanded to eight other medical schools including Mekelle, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Adama, Haromaya, Jimma, and two hospitals under Addis Ababa University (AAU) medical school – Gandhi, and Black Lion.

All the funding Dr. Senait mobilized has gone to strengthen reproductive health services; insuring women have access to family planning and safe abortion; and training future doctors in counseling and advocacy skills.  Dr. Senait says being able to empower young girls and women to be in charge of their reproductive destiny is what breaks the cycle of poverty.

What does accomplishment mean to this ferocious doctor? What Dr. Senait considers as an accomplishment is to have a woman in charge of her life and being able to make choices. A good education she says can afford you having choices.

What is she grateful for: first and foremost, her incredible supportive husband. She says she is successful because she has a husband who is a feminist– a husband, who is willing to uproot the family, leaving his practice as Urologist for the past 20 years and follow her trail. She was quite reluctant to take her newest profession but it was because of her supportive life partner she made the change.

She is grateful and feels blessed to come from a very strong, willing and courageous family of origin. She is grateful for their constant support in her life. Senait is a mother of four from age 6-14. She takes her children when she travels and even when they were young and nursing, she did travel with them nursing them when needed. She feels as an ambitious woman and contributing citizen, she feels the world owes her that much…for her kids are part of it.

She is grateful for the relationships she developed with the health sector both here and abroad.

Her core value is integrity; she says if you have integrity everything else will follow.

Her message to young women is to love what you do. Being able to do something you deeply care about and do it with commitment is a bliss she says.  Don’t limit yourself. The moment you start saying no I can’t do this, the possible becomes the impossible. I believed in delayed gratification. Learn to make lemonade out of lemon for you‘d encounter lemon throughout your life. Strive to be happy and to have a fulfilling life.

What was your challenge growing up? I was loud and an outspoken person and growing up in a culture where girls don’t speak loud and don’t have their own opinion was a challenge. The only reason, I wasn’t kicked out of school was because I was an outstanding student.

Another challenge is that we are very secretive society.  The two things I was most happy when I left for abroad:  I was able to speak my mind and not having to keep everything a secret.

I am a deeply caring person; “when I am disappointed that’s because I care and care deeply”.  Also her siblings share that she was kind and generous and not materialistic. She preached and practiced, “if you have two items, one is extra so you give it away”. She was getting into trouble for giving out her sisters’ material possession for she felt they had more than enough.

AWiB is grateful to Dr. Senait and all her work to put women in the center of the decision making arena. We applaud this expansive daughter of Ethiopia!  The Power of one drumming in our nation calling all her mates to act!

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