Special 90th anniversary issue
Ingida Asfaw ’62:
Ethiopian Cardiac Surgeon,
2007 Alumnus of the Year
When Ingida Asfaw '62 first arrived at what was then Eastern Mennonite College, his English skills were limited and he had almost no money. He was late for the start of classes, after a slow journey by cargo ship from his native Ethiopia.
This fall, nearly 50 years later, he will return to Eastern Mennonite University as a distinguished surgeon, the winner of a 2006 national Volvo award for charitable service, and EMU's 2007 alumnus of the year.
Asfaw, who lives near Detroit, is chief of cardiovascular surgery at Sinai-Grace Hospital, clinical professor of surgery at Wayne State University, chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Trinity Health-St. Joseph Mercy Oakland, and chief executive officer of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons of Michigan.
But a major focus of his life is the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association (ENAHPA), a volunteer network he founded in 1999. The organization now includes some 500 doctors, nurses and other participants. Volunteers from ENAHPA donate their time and skills in Ethiopia, a country where there is only one doctor for every 100,000 people.
Conferred by the alumni association, EMU's annual award honors a former student who "has received recognition in recent years for significant professional, church or community achievement."
'America's Greatest Hometown Hero'
In 2006, Asfaw received the Volvo award as "America's Greatest Hometown Hero." He was chosen out of a field of some 4,300 nominees. Asfaw's award came with a $50,000 contribution to the charity of his choice and a new car every three years for life.
All in all, it's been a remarkable journey for the soft-spoken physician, who celebrated his 67th birthday in May.
Asfaw grew up in a rural area of Ethiopia. He attended the mission school Mennonites had established in the town of Deder, located in the mountains.
His interest in medicine developed early, he says.
"There was a book that I came across that talked about bacteria and microbes," he recalls. "After I read that book, I made up my mind that I would become a doctor and find out about these microbes and why they make people sick."
Another factor was the Mennonite-run hospital in Deder. Asfaw says he was impressed with the dedication of the doctors and nurses there and came to view them as role models.
Long Journey to America
A recent advertisement in commercial magazines shows Dr. Asfaw's wide impact. The photo used is reprinted above with the permission of Merrill Lynch.
In the fall of 1958, Asfaw arrived in the port of Boston, Mass., on his way to Virginia. The cargo ship had departed four days later than scheduled and had taken several days longer than expected on the journey. As a result, he recalls, "The people that were supposed to meet me in Boston and take me back to Harrisonburg had been there and gone back." EMC wired him a bus ticket, but it took several more days for him to receive it and make his way to campus.
The first few months on campus were difficult. The language, culture and food were all new, he observes. "But I made it with the Lord's help."
Looking back, "I had a marvelous four years," he says. "It really prepared me for life, not just academically but spiritually and emotionally."
Asfaw was involved in many groups, including Peace Fellowship. He went out to churches in West Virginia on Sundays and took part in meetings of international students in Ohio and Indiana. "During the summer, I would be visiting many of the churches in Pennsylvania."
"It was wonderful time," he says – as long as he didn't venture far in segregated Virginia. Public schools and many accommodations in the state would not be integrated until the mid-1960s. "Outside the campus, the people were not all that friendly," he observes.
Training Begins in Earnest
Asfaw was vice president of his senior class and earned a double major in chemistry and biology. After graduation, he went back to Ethiopia for a year, to teach at a Bible academy started by Mennonite missionaries. When he returned to North America, he attended medical school at Indiana University.
Asfaw chose to specialize in cardiac surgery because he "wanted to get the best and highest training possible." To become a heart surgeon, he says, a doctor must first learn to perform surgeries on many other parts of the body. This training has been useful in his volunteer work in Ethiopia, he notes.
Asfaw moved to Detroit in 1967, after his graduation from medical school. Soon after moving there, he met his wife, Elizabeth, who is originally from Memphis. The couple have two daughters and a son. Both daughters are preparing to become doctors; their son has just finished college and wants to go into law and business.
For many years, Asfaw says, the "political situation and turmoil" in Ethiopia prevented him from returning. When the government changed, he started traveling to the country.
The Beginning of ENAHPA
ENAHPA began with 27 people from 12 states. Now the network includes people from all over the world – "even Africa" – although 80 percent of participants still come from the United States and Canada.
Volunteers deliver medicine and supplies, treat patients and teach proper medical care. On a 2003 trip, Asfaw performed the first open-heart surgery in Ethiopia.
To keep administrative costs low, Asfaw continues to handle much of the network's correspondence and organizational work. On weekends, he can typically be found working on ENAHPA projects and attending Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit. Asfaw is a deacon in the congregation, in which he has been involved for some 25 years.
In a 2005 interview, Asfaw described his approach to life by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: "You make a living by what you [get], but you make a life by what you give."
Asfaw clearly believes there is more for him to give. He says he is working on establishing a heart center in Ethiopia: "That is my next project – building a specialty hospital and a medical school."
All are invited to hear Dr. Asfaw speak on Oct. 13 at 8:45 a.m. in the Suter Science Center, room 106, followed by a 10 a.m. “science mini-summit” with faculty giving tours of eight science instruction areas. both Dr. Asfaw and Dr. Schnupp will be featured at the homecoming worship service in lehman at 10 a.m. Oct. 14. For more information, visit www.emu.edu/homecoming.
Author Dave Graybill of Harrisonburg, Va., works for a public TV station, does freelance editing and teaches writing part time at EMU.