A Mother’s Voice: Dr. Sosina Dessalegn, MGHD ’20
After completing medical school, most graduates take time to celebrate before beginning their internship years. For Dr. Sosina Dessalegn, there was little time for celebration. Just a week after she graduated, Dessalegn gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Levona.
The timing was not ideal, but it did little to shake Dessalegn’s dream of becoming a doctor, a dream she had held since she was a little girl growing up in Ethiopia.
When Dessalegn was young, she had an elderly neighbor that everyone in the neighborhood looked up to, Dessalegn included. Eventually, this neighbor developed a neurological disorder that worsened over time. Seeing her beloved neighbor’s decline left a lasting impact on Dessalegn.
“One day she told me that the doctors in our hospital couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her,” Dessalegn recalled. “It stuck in my mind — I knew I wanted to become part of the solution and be able to treat people like my neighbor.”
No one in Dessalegn’s family had any kind of medical background, but her parents encouraged her to follow her passion. Dessalegn entered Addis Ababa University for medical school in 2010, during which time she met her husband, Abel.
The Balancing Act
Dessalegn became pregnant in her final year of medical school. She was in the midst of her OBGYN attachment and working a grueling schedule. Graduation was around the corner, but the challenge of working while pregnant was making Dessalegn question whether she would make it to the end.
“I had morning sickness and I was working 36 hour shifts,” Dessalegn said. “At times I thought it would be impossible to make it through.”
Her long working hours made it difficult for Dessalegn to have time to eat enough to maintain her energy throughout her shift. She had hoped her fellow residents would support her, but not all of them had empathy for her situation.
“One night I was on duty and I had not had a chance to eat that day and was getting sick over and over,” Dessalegn remembered. “I asked another resident if I could take a break to get some food and rest. He told me it ‘wasn’t his problem’ and to not involve him with my personal issues.”
Thankfully, between her husband, a few understanding colleagues, and her own determination, Dessalegn was able to complete her attachment and graduate with high marks.
The Road to UGHE
After taking her maternity leave, Dessalegn joined Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health as the national non-communicable disease program coordinator. It was a job that wasn’t highly sought after by most graduates due to its low salary, but Dessalegn had always had a passion for public health and felt it was the perfect opportunity to begin her career helping the underserved.
Her role with the ministry began to introduce Dessalegn to the world of global health, and she began to notice gaps in her knowledge about health systems. In 2018, Dessalegn’s work brought her to Kigali for a conference, where she learned about a young university with an innovative curriculum, the University of Global Health Equity.
“The curriculum had everything I felt was missing from what I was learning at the Ministry of Health,” she said. “It was like this course was made for me.”
With little time left before the admissions deadline, Dessalegn had to make a decision quickly. While she was enamored with UGHE and its curriculum, she had her family to consider.
“I had to talk to my husband,” Dessalegn remembered. “Our daughter was so young. How could I leave?”
Her husband’s answer was simple.
“He said ‘go’ and took the initiative,” Dessalegn said. “He told me if I didn’t do it now I never would, and he was right.”
Challenging Beginnings & Pandemic Pressure
Dessalegn joined UGHE in September of 2019, eager to gain the knowledge she felt she needed to have a greater impact on her country’s health system. However, she would come to find being away from home even harder than she anticipated.
“In the beginning, there were times where I felt like I needed to go home,” Dessalegn said. “I missed my daughter and my husband desperately. There were nights where I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and I would just cry.”
One weekend, Dessalegn’s husband Abel came to Kigali and encouraged her to stay. He knew how much the program meant to her and didn’t want her to regret leaving. Knowing she had the support of her husband, Dessalegn was able to get back to focusing on learning. Things got easier as the year went on — until coronavirus entered the picture.
Like countless others living away from home, Dessalegn was left with a choice: to stay on campus or go home to her family. The uncertainty of the pandemic made it a difficult decision.
“No one knew what was going to happen. When I had to make the decision there were very few cases in Rwanda or Ethiopia,” Dessalegn recalled. “We didn’t know how long we could be stuck, so I took the opportunity to go home and be with my family.”
While she was going home to her family, Dessalegn was leaving behind the new family she had gained at UGHE — her classmates and fellow residents living with her in Butaro.
“We became very close because Butaro is a very tight-knit community,” she said. “It was hard to leave them and I miss them a lot, but we talk every day and stay connected.”
Back home with her family, Dessalegn is finishing her classes remotely, much like the vast majority of students across the globe. She is as determined as ever to complete her studies and apply her learnings to the Ethiopian health system.
The Collective Strength in Motherhood
Dessalegn looks back on her experiences over the recent years and recognizes the strength and support it took for her to achieve what she has. Graduating medical school while pregnant, starting work as a new mother, and leaving her family to continue her education has tested her in ways she could have never imagined. But her challenges have made her stronger, and now she is serving as a role model and mentor for other young female doctors nervous about the prospect of motherhood.
“A lot of other girls look up to me, whether it’s my sisters, cousins, or other young doctors,” Dessalegn said. “When they see my journey they ask me how I did all of this.”
Dessalegn knows that she could not have accomplished everything she has without the support she received along the way. Now that she is in a position to offer support to other women facing similar situations, she understands the importance of being there for them like others were for her.
“When I see these women being encouraged by me it makes me even more motivated. I can use my story to make a difference in their lives. I know I’m going to make a big impact.”