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Northwell recruits Somali-born doctor leader with ‘incredible flair’

by Maura McDermott
Tuesday October 5, 2021

Said Ibrahim knew that a Division 1 college basketball scholarship was his ticket out of Mogadishu and into the medical career of his boyhood dreams.

So it was a blow when the coach who recruited him, three hours after he arrived in the United States, delivered a tight message:

“Here’s a ticket back to Somalia.”

Coach had expected his next center to be more than 7 feet high. Ibrahim was 6 feet 8. Worse, he was too worn to play well in his attempt immediately after his 48-hour trip to Cleveland State University in Ohio.

But the next morning, instead of boarding the plane, Ibrahim delivered an independent message.

“I’m not going back,” the 22-year-old told the coach.

Ibrahim went on to write his own ticket, first to community college, then to Oberlin College and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Next came education at a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital and a career as an internal medicine physician, National Institutes of Health-funded researcher, professor and hospital director.

This month, 59-year-old Ibrahim takes over as senior vice president of Northwell Health’s medical service line and oversees medical services from more than 1,000 doctors, 500 residents and fellows and 1,500 support staff at Northwell’s 23 hospitals and hundreds of outpatient facilities. He also chairs the departments of medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset and the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine in Hofstra / Northwell.

Ibrahim will have a special focus on addressing inequalities in health care, according to Northwell.

“He has the perfect blend of leadership experience, academic success and an engaging personality,” says Dr. Lawrence Smith, executive vice president and chief physician at Northwell Health and dean of the Zucker School of Medicine, in a statement.

Northwell’s recruitment of Ibrahim was the culmination of a national search, says Dr. David Battinelli, chief physician at Northwell. Ibrahim joins Northwell from Weill Cornell Medicine, where he was Professor of Health Policy and Research and Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, among other roles. He has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and was head of medicine at Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

“He is impeccably educated, and Northwell, given its size and scope, is very attractive to people researching health outcomes,” Battinelli said. Ibrahim, Battinelli said, has “an incredible flair for academics, education and research.”

Ibrahim has known he wanted to be a doctor since he was a boy in a small town near Somalia’s border with Ethiopia, the third of 10 children of a police officer who earned $ 100 a month, looking helplessly at how family members died of preventable diseases.

The few doctors who came to his town, he remembered, “were exceptionally appreciated and admired, to be honest with you, and it left an impression on me.”

Ibrahim’s first big break came when he was recruited from a UN-backed high school to Somalia’s basketball team.

Said Ibrahim, third player from the left in the back row, on the Somali basketball team in 1983. Credit: Said Ibrahim

In 1984, he was invited to a rehearsal class in Cleveland, after his Somali coach visited the United States and told a university coach there, “there is this tall guy who can be helpful to you.”

After he tried, Ibrahim said to the coach, “I’m actually more interested in getting an education, so why do we not just forget basketball and allow myself to go to school?”

The coach replied “absolutely not”, Ibrahim recalled.

A spokesman for the university, David Kielmeyer, said in a statement on Monday: “Cleveland State University is pleased to learn that Dr. Ibrahim has succeeded in the end. We congratulate him on his many achievements and wish him all the best.”

With no contacts in Cleveland, Ibrahim wandered the streets with $ 30 in his pocket and eventually found his way to a federal immigration office. He was referred to the Legal Aid Society, where lawyers could not represent him because he did not have a green card at the time, but a lawyer – a man from West Africa – left Ibrahim in his home. Later, a couple who learned about his situation paid for his tuition at a community college. He made the dean’s list and won an academic scholarship to Oberlin, where he met his future wife, Lee Erickson, a physician and health director.

The couple has two adult daughters and live in central Harlem. Ibrahim has never returned to Somalia as the civil war there makes it uncertain to return, he said. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen about 30 years ago.

Ibrahim has been conducting NIH-funded research on health inequalities for more than 20 years.

Northwell has a long tradition of serving a diverse patient group in an egalitarian way, Ibrahim said. He said that in addition to addressing health inequalities – which he said occurs by race as well as by socioeconomic status, gender and other factors – and seeking to provide health care in a reasonable way, he also intends to focus on recruiting and mentoring various groups of medical students and health professionals.

In doing so, he said, “we get the profession to reflect the communities we serve, and as a result, the communities we serve will be more likely to trust us.”

Maura McDermott covers residential real estate and other business news on Long Island.


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