Denominators Matter: Surgeon & Alumnus Heeds Call to Serve

Denominators Matter: Surgeon & Alumnus Heeds Call to Serve

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Kristin Simonetti
May 12, 2014

Navy Veteran. Surgeon. Congressional fellow. Novelist.


Those are just a few of the many hats Hassan A. Tetteh has worn since completing The Washington Center’s Minority Leaders Program in 1993. He has earned three advanced degrees, served two overseas tours as a U.S. Navy surgeon, worked with a major hospital’s cardiothoracic transplant program, and recently completed a prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship with the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. If that weren’t enough, in 2013 he published his first book, Gifts of the Heart, inspired by his experience serving with the Navy in Afghanistan.


Spring 2014 Commencement Speaker


Tetteh touched on these experiences at TWC’s Spring Commencement on May 5th, sending more than 400 graduates into the world with a heartfelt charge to serve others. He delved a bit further into his career – and how TWC helped shape it.


What particularly about your TWC experience put you on your chosen career path?


You don’t always get early exposure to government as a career. It’s not like medicine, where you walk into a doctor’s office as a kid and say, “Oh, that’s a cool job.” TWC gives students the sense that government work is a possibility, and it’s an indelible experience that I think fundamentally influences the trajectory of one’s career. For any organizations or affiliates that partner with TWC, the opportunities they provide to young people are invaluable. Their support ensures there will be a pipeline of young professionals interested in public service as a viable career – something we very much need in the world.


You’ve hosted TWC students at Virginia’s Fairfax INOVA Hospital to witness open-heart surgeries. How did this partnership come about?


TWC frequently asks alumni to host students, and while I’m not walking the halls of the Capitol, I know that health care, policy and reform is a hot debate. It’s always surprising to me that many of our policymakers don’t fully understand what happens in a hospital. This exposes TWC students to that world – the resources, dedication and professionalism required to take care of cardiac patients, some of the most complex patients you can have.


TWC students took part in a program we host for high school and pre-med students, policymakers and other professionals so they can come in and appreciate the type of work that’s done here. Most people in the world never get to see an open-heart surgery. The students get a perspective of what’s going on from nurses and educators who are on hand to answer questions in the observation room. It turned out to be really well received by TWC, and we’ve hosted their students a couple of times.

All most of us know about the inner workings of hospitals or operating rooms comes from TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.” What’s something that would surprise us about real-life cardiac emergencies and the doctors who handle them?


The severity and gravity of situations are so high. On TV, in hospitals, there’s a lot of drama. In the real operating room, particularly for cardiac surgery, you don’t want drama. Everything needs to be smooth and under control. There’s also a realization that it’s not about the doctor. Beyond all the lights and the equipment, at the root of everything is the patient – a patient that’s scared, anxious and suffering from a problem we’re trying to address. That’s the most important thing you’re trying to keep in mind.


You’ve had a winding career path: the Navy, a medical degree, an MBA and an MPA. How did you decide to take this route?


Mentors have played a major role. One was a history professor I had in undergrad, who encouraged me to pursue a life of public service. I returned to that conversation during my time at The Kennedy School [at Harvard], when I started learning about all aspects of health policy and how uninvolved physicians usually are in the process. I thought this was a place I could, as a physician, bring a useful perspective. One of my Harvard mentors recommended speaking to individuals who’d gone down similar paths combining clinical and policy work.


One of those people was Dr. Don Detmer, the former president of the American Medical Informatics Association, whom I met through my recent fellowship. I asked him about his own career, and he told me when he was an undergraduate, an instructor told him: Denominators matter. Denominators help influence the scale of what your work does. He said, “What you and I do in the operating room, one-on-one with patients, is great numerator work. But great denominator work is policy; it affects the masses. It takes a special skill set to work between the two.” That visual is something I think I’ve clung to as I’ve followed my path.


How confident are you in the future of American healthcare after your time on Capitol Hill?


I appreciate the many stakeholders in healthcare – from doctors and patients to pharmaceutical companies and different interest groups within states. That’s something you don’t appreciate enough when you’re an individual practitioner or physician. Everyone contributes to the system.


Right now, our health care system is not necessarily a system but a fragmented conglomerate of entities. It’s not amenable to an easy fix. But as a provider and from the experience I had on Capitol Hill, I believe if the interest of the patient is kept in the highest regard by everyone involved, I’m optimistic for the future of our health care system.


What were your parting words to TWC’s spring students at Commencement?


That public service is a very important and needed profession. There are so many people who need help, but there’s also an awesome opportunity to deliver that help. If you look over history, at who we remember and hold as heroes, it’s those who have served our country and the world – not those who have taken, but those who have given. I feel very strongly through my own experiences that helping individuals is the ultimate way to enrich your own life and make a big difference in the world.

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