A Journey Across International Waters to Become a Minnesota Physician

Tesfatsiyon Ergando, MD

For Tesfatsiyon Ergando, MD, realizing a passion for medicine came after a life-threatening case of malaria.

“I thought I was going to die,” Dr. Ergando recalled. “That’s when I decided I wanted to be a doctor and give back to the community. They saved my life.”

While his drive to help others would lead him to a career in medicine, he never dreamed that it would bring him to the United States – let alone the cold winters of Minnesota. Supporting himself and his family as an emergency technician at M Health Fairview’s St. Joseph’s Campus, while studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination, he’s now an incoming resident in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Internal Medicine Residency program, where he hopes to make an even bigger impact on healthcare in the Twin Cities.

Earning One of Few Seats to Learn

Born and raised in rural Ethiopia, Dr. Ergando worked toward that goal from fifth grade onward, graduating valedictorian of his high school. But the selection process for medical school was another hurdle, since the country has historically faced a significant shortage of training opportunities, although today they are expanding. 

“In Ethiopia, it’s difficult to get into medical school,” Dr. Ergando added. 

Pushed by his dream, he was accepted into the Addis Ababa University School of Medicine,  one of the best medical schools in Ethiopia, where he also trained in emergency critical care. Compelled by a call to service to his community, Dr. Ergando also participated in a nonprofit organization, the Christian Medical Doctors and Dentists Fellowship (CMDDF), leading its mission for three years. 

“We would go to rural parts of Ethiopia to provide free medical services to people without access to care. In some cases, the nearest hospital might be 200 to 300 miles away,” Dr. Ergando said. “That’s where I came face-to-face with my passion for giving back to the community.”

Through partnership with organizations in the U.S. and abroad, his work with the nonprofit helped fully equip a local healthcare center with beds, ventilators and other hospital materials. Because of this and other community work, as well as academic excellence in his field, he applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, aimed at empowering a select group through academics, leadership training and networking. About half a million people apply, but the program only accepts up to 700. 

“I was accepted in 2017, and that was my introduction to the United States,” Dr. Ergando said. 

He completed the leadership fellowship at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, and first came to Minnesota to give a CMDDF fundraising speech organized by AgapeMED, an organization dedicated to addressing local and international health disparities. Here, he met with his childhood friend for coffee and also met his wife. 

“That’s how I ended up in Minnesota,” he said, smiling. 

Becoming a U.S. Physician

While Dr. Ergando’s goal was to gain medical licensure in the U.S., the process is arduous, and, he says, it’s almost like going to medical school all over again. To support his dream of practicing in Minnesota, he started working as an emergency technician at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Campus in St. Paul. 

“While I was one of the few people of color in the emergency department, it was a very good experience, and I got familiar with the U.S. healthcare system,” Dr. Ergando said. “I was happy to be able to use my skills to help the community and, at the same time, prepare for my board exam.” 

Dr. Ergando worked overnight shifts so he could study during the day, preparing for Step 1, Step 2 Clinical Knowledge and Step 2 Clinical Skills exams. During this time of preparation, he also held roles as a psychiatric associate in St. Joseph’s addiction and inpatient psychiatric units. On top of that, he’s an author and editor in a research group looking at artificial intelligence in primary care, a project led by Kevin Peterson, MD, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. While Dr. Ergando was a practicing, licensed physician in his home country, working in these positions helped him see the care continuum from a new vantage point. 

“Was it difficult? Yes. But, my mindset helped; I always think that I’m part of the care team,” he recalled. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m on the provider or doctor’s level, or the technician or nurse’s level, the whole point of medicine is teamwork.”

He applied and interviewed at a number of internal medicine residency programs and even had a couple of pre-match offers, but he wanted to match at the U of M Medical School for the excellent educational opportunities and to stay close to family.

“Ranking programs for the match and declining those pre-match offers wasn’t an easy decision for me, but ultimately it wasn’t what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to stay at the U because I love the clinical practice, the research and the community engagement. It’s my dream program in every aspect, and I was so happy when I found out that I matched into the program I wanted to.”

It’s no surprise that his unique background and skills stuck out, and Dr. Ergando matched into the U of M Medical School’s Internal Medicine Residency program. He’ll start on June 8, and hopes to go on to a cardiology fellowship upon completing the residency. 

Planting Roots, Giving Back to His New Home

Meanwhile, he’s maintained his passion for giving back by helping community and church leaders provide COVID-19 vaccination education and has translated materials into three different languages in collaboration with other volunteers.

“My passion is helping others, and there are a lot of people that need help here in the Twin Cities,” Dr. Ergando said. “There are many who are under or uninsured, and there’s a growing number of immigrants in the metro area. I hope to be someone they can relate to and come to for care. That’s a big deal in my opinion.”

He’s also interested in addressing social determinants of health as well as economic and social conditions that influence differences in group health outcomes.

“I think that the U of M Medical School and M Health Fairview are trying to address social determinants of health, and I can’t wait to be part of that partnership to help the community,” he said. “That’s my biggest passion.”

Dr. Ergando is looking forward to starting residency and has big plans to improve health equity in the Twin Cities but also maintains a humble attitude of service. He credits his success to the support of his wife, family, friends and leadership team and colleagues at St. Joseph’s, who became like a family. He’ll also never forget the people who make it all happen. 

“In my opinion, the nursing assistants, techs, transport people and house cleaning crew don't get enough recognition, especially in this COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “I will always be grateful for their work, because I’ve seen firsthand what they do – I’ve been there and done it – and few people recognize them and their work. We owe them a lot of appreciation and gratitude, and I hope most of us get an opportunity to appreciate what they do every day.”

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