From Local Impact to Global Influence - Senait Fisseha (MD)
It was the dying days of the summer of 2016 and a few weeks away from the Ethiopian New Year’s. Tedros Adhanom (PhD) was Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, who had recently announced his candidacy to become the next head of the World Health Organization (WHO). There was also a heated presidential election that night between an unorthodox candidate and a former First Lady on the verge of becoming America’s first woman president. That was an interesting topic of discussion for his guests at an Indian restaurant within the compound of Sheraton Addis.
The Minister had tidbits of interesting stories he had acquired travelling the world as Ethiopia’s Foreign and Health minister. The light of the immaculate restaurant was dim enough to have eye contacts, with beautiful classical Indian music playing in the background for his guests and a young lawyer from Howard University who was shadowing him while speaking imperfect Amharic to be at ease. The charismatic politician with a PhD from the UK’s University of Nottingham was known to invite random people he meets on social media for a conversation.
He was reflective, chatty and excited with what lied ahead for him that night. He had met hundreds of people at a Diaspora forum that summer in Bahir Dar who had promised to help him in his campaign. He wanted to recruit more.
By the time, it was time to order dinner; he asked if he could delight his guests with his special order. Within 30 minutes, there was a table full of cuisine of India, from Chicken tikka, Biryani, Tandori chicken and butter chicken. “These are the favorite cuisine of Senait,” he said. “Dr. Senait Fisseha,” he corrected himself.
He was delighted to know his guests knew who she was having witnessed her activities on social media and being recognized for her efforts and most recently in Toronto with the Bekila Award. For the rest of the night, it was not the United States politics that occupied the discussion, but his vision for his unlikely campaign as the head of the WHO, which at that point was a fringe candidacy and his “beloved sister Senait”.
At that point, she was the temporary chair of his campaign and wanted her to be its permanent chair but she was hesitant. She was the one who had encouraged his entry in the competitive campaign. She knew his time was up and she had assembled a tight team, which at the time, included noted Ethiopians, including Mehret Mandefro, a Harvard University medical doctor with connections to the Obama White House, and the young Ethiopian American lawyer from Washington DC by the name Nathan Zewdu who was at the dinner as well as a very bright colleague of Dr. Senait from the University of Michigan, whom along with Nathan had committed to move to Ethiopia.
He was not expected to win as the candidates from France and Pakistan were seen as the early favorites.
He recalled how he met her officially when she invited him to Michigan University when he was on a visit to Washington DC to receive the Jimmy and Rosalyn Humanitarian Award and how he was taken back with her candor, smarts and ambition for Ethiopia.
She had met him for the first time 15 years ago when she was doing her OB-GYN residency and he was the head of the Health Bureau of the Tigray Regional State.
By that point, she has had an extraordinary career that has taken her to high places since she received her JD (Juris Doctor) and Medical Doctorate simultaneously in 1999 from the Southern Illinois University. Reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist in the United States, her interest lied in her native Ethiopia. She convinced the university to commence a global initiative to help Ethiopia’s broken healthcare system. That was few years before her appointment as the Director of International programs at the Buffet Foundation, a liberal well-funded group that has had influence in the healthcare of emerging nations around the world.
The duo had collaborated before when it came with the issues of Ethiopia more specifically in her as her role as an Ethiopian Diaspora bringing faculty at the University of Michigan to volunteer. His visit was to be an official visit to cement, expand and institutionalize the partnership that was growing.
There was a partnership to be found and funding to be acquired for what at some point seemed an impossible gesture. With the financial support of the New Medical Education Initiative and with St. Paul Hospital Millennium Medical College (SPHMMC) in the capital, in 2012, the initiative began. Her effort had netted St. Paul its first batch of OB-GYNs, radiologists, surgeons, internists and a renal transplant program.
The new program offered needed training and faculty retention program, in a nation whose locally educated doctors reside in the United States much more than they are residing in Ethiopia. She was awarded USD 1.5 million as seed money from a still unknown doctor and a five year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American International Health Alliance and emulated such a program that was happening in Ghana.
At the University of Michigan, where she was recently honored with the Bicentennial Alumni Award, she served as the chief of Division of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility and the Medical Director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine. With a USD 25 million grant, she also established and was the founding director of the University of Michigan Center for International Reproductive Health Training.
She understood. The friend who she had encouraged to enter the world’s sacred institution is a busy man. She had stood by him at difficult times, as a candidate and as the director general. Even at his challenging, even controversial times, but no one knows his capability better, his gift and potential than her. Whether bringing diversity or gender parity that has known little change at its leadership, WHO is now an institution where it demands attention and respect because of the dream of Senait.
At the ceremony where she was hailed and celebrated at the University of Michigan earlier this month, Tedros could not attend but sent a video message that is posted at the University’s website. In a recorded message, Tedros said, “It is very difficult to summarize my respect for Senait. Her contributions to Ethiopia, to global health, and to me are really immense”.
He added that “Senait is the definition of selfless” and he has “never met anyone so willing to put others ahead of themselves. No task is too big or too small for her. She is one of the most remarkable colleagues I have ever worked with”.
The mother of four remains the chief advisor for Tedros and continues to work on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world.