New doctor will return home to aid women’s health in Ethiopia

by Zelalem

CHICAGO—Dr. Gelila Goba hasn’t forgotten where she came from.

Instead of joining a comfortable practice in the U.S. after completing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, Goba instead will be caring for patients in her native Ethiopia, where in many communities light and heat qualify as luxuries.

After she graduates in May, Goba plans to move back to Ethiopia to implement a new initiative that she hopes will improve the state of women’s health in the desperately poor country of 90 million.

“A lot has been given to me,” said Goba, during a break at Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. “I must make sure that I use those gifts wisely.”


The program is a partnership between Northwestern and Mekelle University in Ethiopia. It provides medical education, clinical training and research in sub-Saharan Africa, where acute doctor shortages and women’s health continue to be vexing problems.

In Ethiopia, the maternal mortality rate is twice the global average, and the rate of death from cervical cancer is almost seven times higher than in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. The entire country has about 220 OB–GYNs nationwide—roughly the same number as Northwestern Memorial alone, according to university officials.

Residency programs are rare in Ethiopia. After students earn medical degrees, they often become general practitioners and work in district hospitals, experts said. OB-GYN subspecialties such as oncology, high-risk obstetrics and fertility are virtually nonexistent. Some doctors seek training abroad, but it has not been standardized. The Mela Project aims to raise the bar and formalize residency training.

“This is not medical tourism, but about something that is truly sustainable, about training the trainers,” said Dr. Magdy Milad, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NU’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “With Gelila as the steward of this program, it will not fail.”

The program, called the Mela Project, gained traction when Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, visited Northwestern in 2012 to rally global resources for women’s health. Goba credited Adhanom with setting up programs to train health workers who provide care in nearly every community across Ethiopia—especially for women and children, the most vulnerable and underserved.

Northwestern embraced the idea and moved forward with the collaboration with Mekelle University, under the direction of Goba.

Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, praised such partnerships.

“Building and retaining human resources across a broad range of medical and nonmedical skills is vital to saving lives and reducing disabilities in developing countries,” Martin said. “Universities like NU are an excellent and underutilized way to build access to the public health, primary and surgical care systems needed to do this.”

As noble as the cause may be, Goba not only will be making professional sacrifices, but also personal ones.

Her husband and two children—a 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son—will remain in their Lakeview home while she spends six months of the year at Mekelle, located in Tigray, about 400 miles north of Addis Ababa, her hometown.

“I want them to be proud of me and proud of where they came from but I’d be lying if I told you that it wasn’t hard,” Goba said. “When I talk to my daughter, she gets very emotional, but I want both my kids to know and understand that the world is bigger than just ourselves.”


The physician has seen the world’s dichotomies firsthand.

In her native country, only 10 percent of deliveries occur in health care facilities, and more than half of women giving birth are assisted by an untrained relative or friend, according to the 2011 Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey.

Goba recalled the first time she stepped into Prentice Women’s Hospital, with its marble floors, tasteful art work, “brilliant” teachers and state-of-the-art equipment—all just a stone’s throw from Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.

“I felt like I was Cinderella, and this was the land of make believe.”

As the oldest of four children and the only daughter, she was encouraged to cultivate more than her domestic skills—something that set her apart from other girls in the country’s patriarchal society, where 63 percent of women are married by age 18, according to government data.

While most girls are taught to stay inside, taking care of the house and younger siblings, Goba said she was encouraged to spend her time reading and studying.

Her grades were good enough to get into Jimma University in Ethiopia, where she entered a five-year program to become a physician. There, she saw girls barely in their teens having babies, and women dying from diseases and complications from labor that could have been prevented.

“It opened my eyes. I realized how easily that could have been me,” she said.

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