Meet the Future of Ethiopian Medicine: The First Ethiopian Pediatric Cardiac Team

January 1, 1970

Ethiopia only has three cardiologists, two of whom have been trained by Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), and no pediatric heart surgeons for a population of over 90 million children under the age of 18. To date Save a Child’s Heart has treated more than 500 children from Ethiopia. During 2015 there was an increase in the number of Ethiopian children treated by SACH, and the focus currently is on building the country’s first pediatric cardiac team.

SACH’s partner in the Jimma University Hospital in Ethiopia, Professor Abraham Haileamlak Mitike, is the Dean of the hospital. He is a pediatrician who completed a one-year training in pediatric cardiology in Israel at the Wolfson Medical Center (WMC) with SACH. Professor Abraham has initiated, in cooperation with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, the construction of a new hospital which will include the first pediatric cardiac center in Jimma.

As part of this process, Professor Abraham sent, in 2012, Dr. Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu for a 5-year training program in pediatric cardiac surgery in Israel at the WMC.

SACH is currently training a team of four physicians from Ethiopia:

  • Pediatric Heart Surgeon Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu
  • Pediatric Intensive Care Specialist Dr. Habtamu Sime Gizaw
  • Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Demeke Mekonnen Mengistie
  • Anesthesiologist Dr. Tolesa Waktola Gemechu

In 2014 SACH hired Daniel Wandumi, an administrative assistant at Jimma University Hospital, in order to assist Professor Abraham with the administrative work related to sending children to Israel for treatments. Wandimu is a candidate to become a heart lung machine technician (perfusion) and is planned to come to Israel towards the end of the training period of the Ethiopian team.

SACH’s goal is to train a full surgery team, including operating room nurses and a perfusion specialist who will return to Jimma and perform pediatric cardiac surgeries independently.

Pediatric Heart Surgeon Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu- training to be Ethiopia’s first pediatric heart surgeon

Doctor Yayehyirad (Yayu) Mekonnen Ejigu studied medicine at Jimma University Hospital in Ethiopia. Through his hard work, dedication and perseverance Dr. Yayu finished his residency in general surgery and began teaching medical students at Jimma University Hospital. It was then that he realized that he had a fascination with pediatric cardiology, and wanted to pursue that field further, even if nobody in Ethiopia had yet been trained in that field.

In his studies, Dr. Yayu had the fortunate chance of being taught by Professor Abraham Haileamlak Mitike, a professor of pediatric cardiology who was trained by Save a Child’s Heart. He encouraged Yayu to pursue pediatric cardiac surgery, and help save the lives of some of the 10,000,000 people that come to Jimma University Hospital for care each year.

Dr. Yayu learned about the work that Save a Child’s Heart does with children with heart disease, and was excited by the idea that he might engage with the types of patients that he will face in Ethiopia as well as have mentors and teachers with an excellent skill set of how to train him. Dr. Yayu then decided to apply for the opportunity to train with Save a Child’s Heart, and was accepted.

Dr. Yayu is currently in his fourth year of training. Dr. Yayu has been accepted to a one year fellowship at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia and will be traveling there in 2018, before returning to Ethiopia in 2019 at the country’s first pediatric cardiac surgeon.

As part of his training, Dr. Yayu travelled twice to Ethiopia during 2015 to take part in two surgical missions; the first mission was an Indian medical mission organized by SACH partners in the Tanzania project – Mending Kids International. The second mission was through SACH US board member Jeff Hoffman who connected SACH and Dr. Yayu with the medical technology company Medtronic who sponsored a US based mission to Ethiopia.

Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Demeke Mekonnen Mengistie:

Like many young children, Dr. Demeke Mekonnen Mengistie dreamed of becoming a doctor from a young age. His childhood dream became a reality when he enrolled at Jimma University in pursuit of his Degree of Doctor of Medicine. He graduated as one of the top five of his class. Thereafter, for the next year and a half, he lectured at Jimma University. Wanting to continue his studies, he traveled to the United Kingdom where he continued his medical education at Cardiff University.

After completing his course there, he returned to Ethiopia and applied to specialize in pediatrics and child health. When he was accepted, he began as a resident at Jimma University Specialized Hospital.

Dr. Demeke first became interested in pediatric cardiology at the beginning of his residency. When a group of doctors came to the hospital in order to evaluate a child with heart disease, he sat in on the discussion. As he was listening and learning about the child’s heart condition, he focused his attention on the children in the room. When one of the children was told that she would need surgery, her reaction of hope for the future solidified his desire to specialize in pediatric cardiology.

The rest of his residency, Dr. Demeke was filled with ambition, for doing something meaningful for children. He finished his residency as a specialist in pediatrics and child health. Dr. Demeke then began as an assistant professor of pediatrics, while continuing to practice pediatric care at Jimma University Hospital. It is with the help of Save a Child’s Heart that Dr. Demeke continues to fulfill his childhood dream. Without “getting the best of the best, and up-to-date teaching, from the Save a Child’s Heart team at the Wolfson Medical Center, in Israel” Dr. Demeke would not have been able to continue on the path of becoming a premier pediatric cardiac physician in Ethiopia.

Dr. Demeke evaluates Yehia Al Hamaida from Gaza
Dr. Demeke evaluates Yehia Al Hamaida from Gaza
Pediatric Intensive Care Physician Dr. Habtamu Sime Gizaw:

Dr. Habtamu Sime born in Bale High Land in the south east region of Ethiopia. As most children from rural areas, he grew up farming and rearing cattle. When he became school aged, he started his formal education at a school in a nearby village where he was at the top of his class.

Shortly thereafter, at nine-years-old, Dr. Habtamu’s mother passed away from a heart problem. It was then impossible for him to continue his formal
education, as his father needed help on the farm, but his father commited to teaching Dr. Habtamu at home. With elementary school completed, Dr. Habtamu’s uncle took him to Diredawa, one of the largest cities in East Ethiopia, to learn. There he completed his high school degree, and continued on to Jimma University School of Medicine.

Pursuing medicine was an easy choice for Dr. Habtamu, he has seen and felt personal sides to cardiac disease. As a student, he attended a lecture on childrens’ health in Ethiopia where he learned that everyday many children die due to preventable and curable diseases because there are no physicians to treat them. Since then, Dr. Habtamu knew he would study pediatrics and joined the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at Jimma University.

After studying pediatrics for three years, Dr. Habtamu decided to specialize in treating acute life threating conditions. Upon reaching this decision, he contacted the Dean of the University, Professor Abraham, who trained with Save a Child’s Heart years earlier, and asked whether he could offer a suggestion of how to train in this specialized field. Professor Abraham told him about Save a Child’s Heart. Dr. Habtamu applied and was accepted into the training program. He arrived in Israel on June 2015 and in after completing a course of study, he will become Ethiopia’s first Pediatric Intensive Care Doctor.

Anesthesiologist Dr. Tolesa Waktola Gemechu:

Dr. Tolesa Waktola Gemechu is an anesthesiologist. He decided early on in his medical career that he wanted to treat children. During his clinic practices he was involved with saving the lives of critically ill children, specifically those with cardiovascular and respiratory problems. As he began his anesthesiology training, he realized that there were large management gaps in this field. Due to very few trained anesthesiology technicians in Ethiopia, most of the required anesthesiology is performed by nurses. Additionally, of the few anesthesiology doctors that practice medicine, almost all of them practice in general anesthesiology. Dr. Tolesa will have the distinction of becoming Ethiopia’s first pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist when he completes his training.

Before beginning his training with Save a Child’s Heart, he received training in neonatal resuscitation and pediatric anesthesia during medical school at Hawassa University School of Medicine. During his time in medical school, seeing sick children strengthened his inclination to pursue pediatric care. He hopes that when he is finished with his training he “will be able to help them all.”

Dr. Tolesa began training in pediatric anesthesia at Jimma University Hospital in April 2015. It was during this training that he became connected with Save a Child’s Heart. Dr. Tolesa applied to train with Save a Child’s Heart, and after being accepted, has recently started his training at the Wolfson Medical Center in Israel. After completing a three year training Dr. Tolesa hopes to return to Ethiopia and help pediatric cardiac patients across the country.