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Ethiopia to Minnesota: An Interview with Hakeem on His Journey to Nursing

It’s National Nurse’s Week, and we are celebrating all of the highly skilled and compassionate nurses who help care for our kids at Gillette Children's.

Keep reading for more about one of our outstanding nurses, Hakeem Abdulwahab, RN. Born and raised in Ethiopia, Hakeem worked his way up to a nursing position at Gillette after years of hard work and determination. 

Hakeem Abdulwahab posing in one of Gillette's patient rooms

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Jimma, Ethiopia. I was the second youngest of eight siblings in a poor family. As a teenager, my parents sent me to live with my older sister in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, so that I could attend high school and learn English. My dream was to be successful so that I could take care of my family, so in 2003, I applied to come to the U.S. through the Diversity Visa lottery program. People from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S. enter the lottery program for a chance to be selected to apply for a visa.

At that time, online applications were not available so I had to send in everything by mail. My family did not have a mailing address because it was too expensive, so thankfully a friend of mine allowed me to send the application from his address. I hoped for the best, but after more than six months passed without a word, I had forgotten about the application and put the idea of coming to America to rest.

Finally, one day my friend called to tell me that a letter had arrived and that I was selected! My hometown exploded in celebration—I was the first person in my family to be coming to America. It was a very exciting time for me. I was 21 and had so many people around me rooting for my success. But for me, getting the visa was about more than just advancing my own goals, it was also the beginning of a better life for my family. My siblings and parents who I would leave in Ethiopia were counting on me. This made me very anxious, yet excited about the future.

To give you an idea of how rare it is to be chosen for a visa via the lottery system, consider that out of 845,474 entries received from Ethiopia in 2015, only 4,988 were selected to move forward in the application process. Even less actually end up successfully completing the rigorous process and making it to the U.S.

What was your life like when you came to the U.S.?

One of the stipulations of my visa was that I needed a sponsor before I could move, and a family friend who lived in the U.S. offered to sponsor me in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of my commitment to my family, I was not able to attend college immediately after getting to the U.S. I relied on the high school education and English I had learned in Ethiopia, and began working two jobs so that I could send money back home.

For the first five years I was in the U.S., I was working at McDonald's during the day and cleaning at night, while also filing visa applications for two of my sisters to come join me in Minnesota. When they were finally approved for visas and joined me here, they helped ease the financial burden so that I could start taking college classes.

How did you find Gillette?

Gillette is one of the first places I worked at when I came to the U.S. In 2005, a friend of my sponsor who worked at Regions Hospital told me there were openings for cleaning positions with Gillette’s Environment of Care team, and suggested I look into it. I had no idea what Gillette was, but it happened to be right next to the apartment I lived in, so I applied.

Though I had no housekeeping experience, Kit Brady, who interviewed me and is now Gillette’s Vice President of Human Resources, Education and Guest Experience, hired me after I told her my story. I switched jobs to the McDonald's near the hospital so that I could continue to work there during the day before going to my full-time overnight position at Gillette.

It was because of Gillette’s tuition assistance program that I was able to begin my college career, receive my nursing assistant certification, and eventually earn my two-year nursing degree in 2017.

What made you decide to continue your education and get your nursing degree?

When I worked the overnight shift at Gillette, I cleaned doctors' offices as well as the Inpatient Rehabiliation Unit, and although I had never met any of the doctors, I knew some of their faces from the pictures they had on display. Once during my day shift at McDonald's, a man walked in whom I recognized as Kevin Walker, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Gillette. I cleaned his office every night but he had no idea who I was because we worked different schedules. When I served him his food I said, “Thank you, Dr. Walker,” and he looked at me in surprise and asked how I knew him. I explained, and from that day on, Dr. Walker has been my mentor.

Hakeem Abdulwahab posing with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kevin Walker

Hakeem and Dr. Walker (2018)

Soon, I began cleaning the operating rooms and Postanesthesia  Care Unit  (PACU) where Dr. Walker spent most of his time. He related to my story and took genuine interest in my success. He would always stop to talk to me about my plans to continue my education, and ask how he could help me accomplish my goals. I am so grateful that Dr. Walker was one of many people at Gillette who made up a strong support system for me.

Part of my support system also includes a group of amazing nurses at Gillette who I credit for steering me towards getting my degree. Nursing supervisors Tammy Sinkfield-Morey, RN, and Amy Harding, RN, knew while I was taking college courses that I wanted to work in health care, so they took time to explain the benefits of getting a nursing degree and showed confidence in my ability to one day be a nurse. They both went above and beyond anything I hoped for by advocating for me to get a nursing assistant position at Gillette once I received my certification. When the time came, Jennifer Kohnen, RN, a nursing support manager, took their recommendation and hired me. She also believed in me and saw my potential despite my lack of experience, and I was ecstatic to officially transition to a clinical position at Gillette.

Hakeem and Tammy

Hakeem and Tammy (2018)

Soon after receiving my certification, I got my two-year nursing degree and applied to work in Gillette’s Adult Inpatient Unit. Nicole Hickman, RN, the unit's interim manager, gave me the opportunity of a lifetime when she hired me as a nurse. I will always appreciate her for opening that door for me.

Thanks to the generous support of everyone at Gillette and the help of my sisters, I will be graduating with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in 2019.

What do you enjoy most about working with our kids? Have you created any special memories?

There is something memorable happening every day that I’m at Gillette, but anytime I can make a patient smile or feel comfortable is special to me. Also, it means so much to know that I am a positive role model and source for other young people of color, especially for immigrant families coming into a new world on their own with little guidance or support. If those families can come into a complex environment like Gillette and feel like they are at home, then I am happy.

Why is being a nurse special to you?

It is special for so many reasons, from the people I work with to the people I have been working to support; my family. My youngest sister, who is still in Ethiopia, has Down syndrome and I spent a lot of time taking care of her before coming to the U.S. This laid a strong foundation of empathy, patience and hospitality that has helped me be successful as I pursue my career in nursing. Additionally, the relationships I have built with my colleagues, and the genuine interest they took in helping me succeed, is why I am so proud to serve patients alongside them.