By Judy Berthiaume
Photo caption: Dr. Woubeshet Ayenew was still in his medical residency when he found his calling, providing care to underserved populations in Minneapolis. Nearly 20 years later, he’s a respected cardiologist and community advocate in the Twin Cities, providing care while also trying to increase the number of African American physicians.
Dr. Woubeshet Ayenew was still in the early months of his three-year internal medicine residency at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis when he noticed how often he was asked to talk with patients who were uneasy about their diagnosis or reluctant to follow their doctor’s medical advice.
Usually all it took for him to put their minds at ease was confirming a test result, taking a few minutes to explain a medical term or encouraging them to follow a recommended care plan.
It quickly became obvious to him why they were so willing to trust him — like many of the patients at the medical center, located in one of Minnesota’s most diverse areas, Ayenew is Black.
"They talked to me and listened to me and trusted me because they saw me as one of them," Ayenew says.
“They talked to me and listened to me and trusted me because they saw me as one of them,” says Ayenew, a native of Ethiopia who earned his undergraduate degree in biochemistry/molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1992 before going to medical school at the University of Minnesota.
He realized then for the first time how important it is for people of color to have access to doctors who look like them, something that is especially true of African Americans, whose mistrust of health care goes back decades, he says.
“It finally occurred to me how much it matters that there were only two Black students in my class in medical school,” Ayenew says. “And, since I am Ethiopian, there was only one African American in that whole class. I glossed over that at first, but once I began to understand what it meant, especially to the African American community in Minneapolis, it was no longer about me and my ambitions to be a doctor. I knew I had a calling and that I had stumbled into something much bigger than I understood.”
That newly discovered calling has shaped his career and his life ever since.
After finishing his residency, he began a cardiovascular medicine fellowship at UW-Madison, already knowing that he would return to Hennepin County to build his medical practice.
Nearly 20 years later, Ayenew still is providing cardiovascular care in Minneapolis, focusing his efforts primarily on serving underrepresented populations. He currently practices with the Hennepin Heart Center at Hennepin Healthcare, formerly known as Hennepin County Medical Center. A respected leader in the cardiology field, his name regularly appears on lists of Minnesota’s top doctors.
Ayenew also works tirelessly to increase the number of people of color, especially African Americans, who become doctors. He is a teacher, mentor, advisor and advocate in and for secondary and higher education communities, working to inspire and prepare young people of color to pursue careers in medicine, while also trying to remove the barriers that often block their way.
As a Black doctor, he knows simply being visible and accessible can make a difference in how young African Americans see their futures.
“You cannot be what you don’t see,” Ayenew says. “If you’ve never seen a Black doctor until you’re a sophomore in college, you’re not going to be thinking about being a doctor as something you can do. I don’t want anyone to not become a doctor because they don’t think they belong here.”
Focusing on the heart
Ayenew focused on the specialty area of cardiology because he found the heart — one of the few organs that is perpetually moving — fascinating. He also liked the idea of being a heart surgeon, though because there were no cardiologists in Ethiopia when he was growing up, he was well into his medical studies before learning that cardiologists and heart surgeons are two distinct professions.
“I eventually realized that cardiology allows for more direct and upstream engagement with patients and also offered the breadth in practice that I was seeking.” Ayenew says. “It took me 11 years after college to become a cardiologist, so I might have picked a less difficult path had I figured it out sooner. Now, I’m very pleased I did not know because I’m very happy with my career.”
The cardiology specialty area also aligns perfectly with his goal of making a difference in the lives of African Americans. Research shows that African Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure and are more likely to die from heart disease than their white peers.
Now in a leadership position as the director of the Cardiovascular Clinic and Outreach Services, Ayenew is taking steps to make it easier for African Americans to access cardiovascular care in Hennepin County. For example, he has initiated cardiovascular outreach services at community clinics in all corners of the county, offering consultation services to nearly 80% of Hennepin Healthcare’s adult patients.
“We were asking people — many of whom don’t have a car — to come downtown to us if they wanted care,” Ayenew says. “Now we provide more access, and we do it by going to them.”
That approach also tells people they matter, and they are valued, Ayenew says.
People are trusting us with their lives, so we need to make sure when they come to us, they are in a better place when they leave than when they arrived,” Ayenew says. “Every time every patient is here, we respect them, we educate them and we empower them. That’s always the goal.
“People are trusting us with their lives, so we need to make sure when they come to us, they are in a better place when they leave than when they arrived,” Ayenew says. “Every time every patient is here, we respect them, we educate them and we empower them. That’s always the goal.”
Ayenew knows the U.S. health care system still has many inequalities that have a disproportionate impact on people of color. He also knows the research shows access to services and poorer health outcomes continue to be common, with African Americans continuing to face the biggest challenges.
And because minority populations — especially African Americans — are more comfortable with physicians who look like them, Ayenew knows there still are far too few Black cardiologists.
But he also knows that what he and others are doing is making a difference.
“It would be ludicrous for me to think that I’m going to correct a problem America has had for many decades,” Ayenew says of health care inequities. “But I also don’t feel like I’m wasting my time because even small changes can make a difference.”
Finding inspiration close to home
While he discovered his passion for serving the African American population during his residency, his efforts to make a difference for their community became even more personal when he became a father, says Ayenew, whose sons now are 9 and 12.
“Though my commitment to serve the population of Hennepin was firm when I graduated from medical school and started my residency, my emphasis on mentoring youth was a passion that grew from the responsibility of raising these boys — raising two young Black men in America,” Ayenew says. “Every story on the news was no longer about another unfortunate young African American. Not seeing many Black kids in undergrad and medical school was no longer a striking statistic. Rather, it was the reality that was awaiting my children's generation. It was becoming very personal.”
Raising compassionate, productive, well-grounded and accountable young men became his No. 1 job, Ayenew says.
His love for his children inspires much of his advocacy outside of medicine, Ayenew says.
He is involved in a variety of initiatives, such as mentoring high school students, traveling to Ethiopia each year for medical missions, and volunteering to write and translate bilingual Amharic (the language spoken in Ethiopia) and English children’s books with the Open Heart Big Dreams and Ethiopia Reads organizations.
“This passion is what started to pull me in all directions, including spending more and more time with youth at different stages of education and milestones, so I can advocate for them and mentor and encourage them,” Ayenew says. “The need to have my children be proud of their Ethiopian heritage and use that identity to stand firm and proud in their daily transactions is what started my role as a bilingual children/youth book writer. So was the need to connect them back with Ethiopia through volunteering.”
Finding his path
As a young boy, Ayenew was surrounded by people who inspired and encouraged him to pursue his career in medicine. His mother was the head pharmacist at a large public hospital in Ethiopia, where Ayenew spent many hours trailing after her, often visiting with physicians along the way. He knew in grade school that he would be a doctor someday.
Growing up, Ayenew also knew he would go to college in the U.S. His father, a professor at a university in Ethiopia, had studied at the University of Minnesota and planned for his two sons to do the same.
However, as the time for college neared, his parents became less certain that the large, urban university would be the best place for their sons, who had attended only small, private all-boys schools in Ethiopia.
As they considered their options, they discovered UW-Eau Claire, a smaller Midwest university that offered strong academics, lower costs and was welcoming to international students, Ayenew says.
“My father was our link to the Midwest,” Ayenew says. “Though his initial intention was to have us enroll at U of M, in so many ways, the nearby school of UWEC proved to be more accommodating and reassuring for international students. My older brother came to UWEC in 1985 and I followed.
“I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with numerous great physicians in my early years when I was with my mother at the hospital. I received nothing but encouragement from all these encounters. So, I came to UW-Eau Claire with determination to prepare myself for medical school. I came to campus with a very strong ‘of course, medical school’ view.”
Later he realized he also came to UW-Eau Claire without any real understanding about what it would take to succeed on a college campus thousands of miles from home, nor a plan for how he might get into and pay for medical school.
“I had wanted to pursue medicine since grade school and I had blindly followed that naïve ambition completely unabated by the realities that surrounded me,” Ayenew says. “I had not considered the cost and competitiveness of med school, the need for networking or the need for support systems.
“My childhood excitement proved to be indispensable when reality started to surface, and I started to encounter headwinds.”
He quickly discovered that as a Blugold he didn’t need to navigate those headwinds on his own.
His first days on campus were both exciting and terrifying, Ayenew recalls. Communal living was unsettling, sharing classrooms and labs with female students was new to him, and he was overwhelmed by what at the time seemed to be a large and intimidating campus.
“The enormity of everything was incredible to me; I had not seen lecture halls or labs that big,” Ayenew says. “At first it all was overwhelming. But I would look out my window in Horan Hall and see the river and woods below and it was so beautiful. Then I met the most remarkable people, and the whole experience became amazing.”
Research and other opportunities
Those remarkable people included Dr. Scott Bailey-Hartsel, then a young faculty member who taught chemistry and biochemistry. At the time, Bailey-Hartsel was just starting to build his research program and he hired Ayenew to be a student research assistant.
That was Ayenew’s introduction to research, an experience that gave him knowledge, confidence and connections, all of which proved to be invaluable when it came time to apply to medical schools.
“He was a teacher with unquenchable exuberance who played a significant role in guiding and encouraging me throughout my years at UWEC,” Ayenew says of Bailey-Hartsel. “He was a very strong advocate for students. What someone like me — someone with no support system nearby — needed was a Scott who believed in me and pushed me to aspire for more.”
Their research led to co-authored published research papers, as well as presentations at regional and national meetings, experiences Ayenew never expected to be part of his undergraduate education.
It was an honor to be a mentor to Ayenew, says Bailey-Hartsel, who credits his former student with helping him launch the research that he continues today.
Given Ayenew’s intellect, ambition and heart, Bailey-Hartsel says he’s not surprised that Ayenew now is an accomplished physician and advocate for underrepresented populations.
“Woub was the rarest of students,” Bailey-Hartsel says. “He had an intense work ethic coupled with intense kindness and patience. He joined my lab very early in my tenure at UWEC and was instrumental in helping me get my work off the ground. He was the heart and soul of a core of excellent students that still amaze me today. He did creative and careful lab work.”
Ayenew’s work as a student was so well done and relevant that a review article he co-authored in 1993 still gets cited today, Bailey-Hartsel says. In 2020, he found five articles in the literature citing Ayenew’s nearly 30-year-old review, including one relating to a potential COVID-19 therapy, he says.
His research with Bailey-Hartsel also led to opportunities that helped him pay for medical school, Ayenew says. As a foreign student, he did not qualify for financial assistance or loans to pay the nonresident medical school tuition, which at the time was $34,000 a year.
“It was not clear where I was going to come up with the $150,000 for that adventure,” Ayenew says of paying for medical school. “Clearly, my middle-class parents did not have the money. I stumbled upon a solution in Minnesota, and the answer to my problem was my UWEC research experience.”
During his first semester of medical school, he met a renal physiologist, Dr. Stephen Katz, and asked for a job in his lab, confident he was qualified because of his research experiences with Bailey-Hartsel.
“Though the details of the physiology lab were very different, I do credit the experience of working in Scott’s lab to have afforded me the confidence to seek such an opportunity,” Ayenew says. “Steve offered me the job for the full duration of my medical school and that is how the immensely expensive burden of medical school was alleviated.
“I am blessed to be one of the few students in America who has never taken a loan or received a government grant throughout my undergrad and medical school education. Of course, this absence of a massive debt at the end of 15 years of post-high school education is an incredible gift that I wish was available for many others.”
While he always appreciated the opportunities UW-Eau Claire gave him, it wasn’t until he was teaching and advising undergraduate students in Minnesota that he realized that his experiences as a Blugold were not the norm at American universities, Ayenew says.
At UW-Eau Claire, they take you under their wing and give you experiences people usually only have in graduate school. You do research and go to national meetings to present it. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was until I was teaching. I would bring ideas up and people would tell me that those are not things undergraduates can do. I told them they do those things at UWEC.
Many people across campus — in and out of the classroom — also shared their advice and friendship, Ayenew says. Though far from home, he felt like he was part of a strong community, he says, noting that Bailey-Hartsel even hosted a graduation party for him.
“For a kid who showed up on campus with no support system and his family thousands of miles away, the seemingly small things so many people did was indeed tremendous,” Ayenew says. “I often tell my story about UWEC to my students, explaining that without certain people holding the ladder for me and giving me the lift, I would not have made it as far as I did.”
Other outside-the-classroom experiences
Since he had no real plan for getting into or paying for medical school when he came to UW-Eau Claire, Ayenew always was scrambling to find ways to earn money and build a resume that might help him stand out from other applicants. Some of those ideas worked out better than others, he says with a laugh.
He was active in many honor and service student organizations, experiences that were valuable during and after his time on campus. However, a short stint as a student-athlete didn’t do much other than earn him the honor of being the university’s “slowest Ethiopian runner ever,” a record he assumes still stands today given how much he struggled to keep up with his teammates, he jokes.
His jobs as a resident assistant and orientation assistant were tremendous experiences, allowing him to develop his interpersonal communication and leadership skills, all things he still uses today.
Through a small business he started — collecting and selling aluminum cans — he made a bit of money, though not nearly enough to pay for medical school, as he’d hoped. Still, a business student he befriended taught him how to invest his earnings in the stock market, giving him his first peek into that world, he says.
These and so many more experiences added value to his time as a Blugold because they taught him things that helped him get where he is today in his career and life, Ayenew says.
“All these experiences on campus had their own set of lessons,” Ayenew says. “I was the weekend garbage guy in the dorms, as well as the mailman. I also worked at the front desk, did painting for facilities and other jobs. These are all jobs that paid dividends in my later years. They also were critical in affirming for me that every job is to be respected and that every worker is respectable.”
They also taught him about financial discipline, personal finances, delaying gratification and long-term planning, all incredibly important skills during his years in medical school, residency and fellowship.
“After graduating from UWEC, it was 11 years of training to become a cardiologist, and self-discipline was key to surviving and to success,” Ayenew says. “UWEC helped me build those skills.”
Most importantly, he says, his time on campus showed him what can happen when you have people around you who are encouraging and pushing you to try new things.
“I consider UW-Eau Claire the launching pad for getting me where I am now,” Ayenew says. “Without UWEC, I would not have known a teacher could take you under their wing, mentor you and give you opportunities and encouragement, so you could do things you never thought you would do. So many people at UWEC gave me these opportunities.
“It felt like my mentors at UW-Eau Claire were holding a torch and they handed it me, telling me to keep doing this sort of thing for others. I’ve tried to keep the torch going.”
Giving back to UW-Eau Claire
While most of Ayenew’s advocacy has been in Minneapolis, he has not ever forgotten that UW-Eau Claire is where he got his start.
So, now, he’s looking for ways to give back to his alma mater.
COVID-19 derailed some initial plans for building new connections to the campus, but he is continuing to talk with campus leaders about how he can best support current and future Blugolds.
“We are just starting to scratch the surface,” Ayenew says. “How can I model for students of color that anything, including medical school, is possible? How can I help someone who maybe feels like they don’t have a place at UW-Eau Claire see that they do belong? If I can fill some gaps, if I can be a mentor, if I can do something for a student that will help them blossom, then I want to do those things.”
When he came to UW-Eau Claire, he wasn’t looking for a mentor, mostly because he didn’t realize he needed one, Ayenew says. Fortunately for him, others knew that is exactly what he needed, he says.
“I really came to college very ill-prepared,” Ayenew says. “I was in a new country, learning a new culture. I was still stumbling around when I came upon people who took an interest in me. Four years could have come and gone without my having made any of the incredible connections that changed my life, had the right people not reached out to me.
“Paying that back is really the best way I know to keep that very positive and warm feeling afloat. If I can do something that helps a student at UW-Eau Claire have the kind of fulfilling life I have, to me that would be amplifying what I think is the legacy of UW-Eau Claire.”