Meet an Eritrean Medical Student at Harvard University
Only the Beginning…
(Aug 22, 2018) The young Eritrean medical student, Tomas Tsegai Tesfaslassie, possess a great vision and plans for his homeland. He works hard to give back to his nation in any way he possibly can. Raised as an immigrant he came from a family that had to struggle to survive every day, Tomas Tsegai Tesfaslassie was told that it was impossible for him to go to college. Despite what people predicted, tough, he made it UCSF, one of the top Med-Schools in the US. Currently, he is studying at Harvard University.
Following his dreams of becoming a doctor, Tomas works hard on his studies to become a Trauma Surgeon after his graduation in 2020. What is fascinating about this young Eritrean is, he took a year out of his busy schedule to collect different medical supplies he thought might be lacking at the Eritrean Hospitals. This summer, Tomas mad his way home and brought about 2.5 million dollars worth of medical supplies to the med authorities of Eritrea, and it is only the beginning.
- -Nice to have you here with us, would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Tomas Tsegai Tesfasslasie. I was born in Addis and moved to the States with my parents when I was just eight. I was raised in northern California. I’m in my fourth year medical school at Harvard. However, I took two years off my education time, one year to send medical supplies to Eritrea and one year to get my MPH(master’s in public health) with emphases on health polices and management at Harvard University. I will be graduating in 2019 and continue my education to be a trauma surgeon in 2020.
- -Trauma Surgeon?
It is a general surgery but it’s for people who gets shot or stabbed. Trauma surgeons are the ones who go to the Emergency Room and open the patient’s heart and pump their heart with their hands to save them on the operating table. They are the equate care one can get for a surgery.
- -How did you get in to Med- School?
My parents didn’t have money after we moved to the States. We were immigrants and my parents didn’t know English well to have a proper job. We grew up poor. My father didn’t have health insurance, one day he almost died due to his uncontrolled hypertension diabetes. That was a big scare in our family. We had to rush him to the hospital and we thought he was going to die. And that is when I started to think about getting into Med. I went to UC Davis for undergrad for neurobiology and physiology behavior measure. There I volunteered at a free clinic taking care of people like my family who didn’t have health insurance. And that gave me a lot of gratitude in my life. That is when I decided that medical school is the right choice. I graduated in 2014 and I went to UCSF for my medical education.
- -Were you always connected to your home land?
Yes. This is my third time to be here. My parents influenced me to be passionate about my country. They are the ones who taught me Tigrigna and everything about my homeland. Also, there were many Eritreans in the areas I grew up in California. You are never far away from an Eritrean mom or dad. We are a small community. We get together and go to festivals and various events together which helped spark how cultured and connected I am to my Eritrean blood. Although I have been here before, it is in 2014 that I seriously started to explore my heritage by going to places where my parents are from. At the end of the day, even though I grew up in the States and I am as American as one can be, there is still a big part of me that gets influenced by my Eritrean culture.
- -You took off a year to send medical supplies to Eritrea. Did you really need that much time?
I never thought that I was going to need a whole year to do that, but my mentors in my medical school advised me to take a whole year to establish my non- profit organization because nobody has ever done that in my med school. It took us seven to eight month to get our non-profit up and running, to get our web site and social media running and to get approved by the IRS and it took us about four months to get the supplies and shipments. I thought it was going to be, easier but I definitely needed a year since it was much harder than I had expected.
We have a board of six people who helped me a lot with establishing it. I am the CEO; we have a CFO, Secretary, Community relations.
- -How was the process like?
First, we started to talk to the embassy to explain what we wanted to do and what our mission statements were. During the process we were talking to the IRS, which is the longest process to become an official non-profit. December is when we started to contact my medical school and other health care institutions to get supplies. We had an official letter and we got the supplies fairly quickly, especially since I am plugged in the health care system. And we found a shipper and negotiated the price. After a month of being here, I had help from Amanuel from Pharmicore to I figured out who to talk to and get approved by the official authorities a week ago. Now the supplies are with the Ministry of Health.
- -What are the supplies you brought?
The supplies are pediatric, podiatry, surgery, OBGYN, radiology, oncology, and labor and delivery materials. We got supplies for about ten departments. We shipped about twenty types of medical supplies worth around 2.5 million dollars.
The reason I wanted to do this was when I was here in 2014, my uncle had a stroke. We took him to the Halibet Hospital and I saw that they didn’t have the supplies needed to take care of someone who just suffered a stroke. That is when I first thought I should do something about this since I already cared about public health.
I started my medical school when I went back to the States. So in the third year the students do rotations in hospitals and just like everyone else, I was taking care of people who suffered a stroke like my uncle. We had a protocol and equipment. That is when I noticed that I was throwing away much equipment; once you open up a pack you just throw away the remaining. That is when I started to push my med school to give the remaining supplies to countries that need it.
- -Do you plan to do more for the future?
Non-profits are set up to do a rotation of different countries every five years for support. Eritrea is the first country. We have four years more to go, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to stop sending supplies here after that. Our main branch is in the bay area in California. We are trying to open up two more branches in Texas and in Washington so that it’s not just us sending medical supplies but many more people. That is the first mission I am going to work on when I get back, getting more people to send various supplies here.
My hope is that we can move forward in the coming two to three years. and hopefully we can diminish the supplies which are lacking in the hospitals.
- -Anything at last
I heard a quote one day, “impossible is a big word thrown around by little people”. When I was younger, people saw where I was living and saw that my parents didn’t speak English and they had to become janitors and housekeepers. A lot of people told me it was impossible for me to go to college to pursue my dream and become a doctor. Now I am here and I am helping my country. I am going to Harvard and I am going to UCSF, which is a top medical school. So for anyone out there, who has been told by anybody that it is impossible for them to reach their goals, please don’t listen to them. They are just throwing away the word impossible because they themselves have barriers on what they can accomplish themselves. If you put the work in and try to work hard, anyone can accomplish anything. Hopefully one day they can be interviewed by you and they can say the same thing to someone else.
-Thank you for your time, Tomas.
Thank you for having me.
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