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Treating Body & Soul

July 01, 2019 - 9 minute read

Miseker Abate

Miseker Abate walks in a legacy of godliness and care for others that was embodied in her father’s life. For him, it meant becoming a theology professor in their home country of Ethiopia, and then at Concordia Irvine. For Miseker, the path is in the field of medicine. She recently earned her medical degree from UC Irvine and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. She heads now to Cornell University for her surgical residency.

The goal, she says, is to use everything she has received to help those lacking medical access, particularly in Africa.

“I feel like I’ve always been on a discovery path,” Miseker says. “The question I had for God was, ‘What is my purpose?’ I knew I was blessed, privileged and had opportunities that so many people wish they had, and I needed to find a way to maximally give back the opportunities I received.”

The family’s journey to Concordia University Irvine began with her father’s spiritual awakening when he was in high school, which shocked many of his relatives. Eshetu Abate was a brilliant student and scored so high on academic tests that Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, visited his school (in a rural region seven hours south of Addis Ababa, the capital city) and awarded him a gold watch. But rather than train for leadership in the communist Derg regime which later governed the country, Miseker’s father pursued theological study and was taken under the wing of Norwegian missionaries who gave him a scholarship to attend Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis. He finished his PhD in 1988 at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

“A lot of people told him to stay in the U.S. because of the upheaval of the Derg regime, but he went back and worked at the seminary in Addis as a professor, then as the dean,” Miseker says.

That’s why I began considering mission work. I couldn’t continue as though things were normal here. I knew I needed to do things with the opportunities I received.

Miseker was born in Addis, two weeks after the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991.

At age seven, the family moved to Norway for two years as her father taught in churches
throughout Scandinavia and her mother, Amarech, continued to teach and advocate for women’s empowerment within the church and society. When they moved back to Ethiopia, the sharp differences between first-world and third-world conditions caught young Miseker’s attention.

“Norway is very different than Addis, so it was kind of a shock and a question that lingered in my mind,” she says. “I wanted to understand why the disparities existed, but I was too young to delve into that and didn’t wrestle with it too much. Those questions laid dormant for a while. I thought my life would continue in Ethiopia.”

Miseker Abate at work in a hospital

A few years later the family made a permanent move to Irvine, where Dr. Abate became a professor of theology at CUI. For Miseker, the transition was extremely difficult.

“It felt like a loss to come here and start a new life,” she recalls. “Leaving everything you knew, you start missing your family and then it hits you that this is forever. I kept asking, ‘Why is this my life?’”

She experienced something akin to survivor’s guilt for having so many opportunities while many in Ethiopia did not.

“That’s why I began considering mission work,” she says. “I wanted to be a theologian like my dad. I couldn’t continue as though things were normal here. I knew I needed to do things with the opportunities I received. People were welcoming in Irvine, and I had friends, but it was never like this was my life. When you grow up in a different place, you can’t ignore it.”

Her father established two churches, in Long Beach and Los Angeles, while also teaching at CUI. Her mother, who earned a master of philosophy in religious studies and a bachelor of arts in theology, had been a professor of women’s studies at the seminary in Addis. She remained deeply involved in local ministry and worked to create leadership opportunities for young women in the church and society in Ethiopia, while advocating against harmful cultural traditions like early marriage and labor inequality.

Concordia professors Dr. Michael Young, Dr. Ken Ebel and Dr. John Kenney were instrumental in everything I did.

During Miseker’s undergraduate years at Concordia, cancer began stealing her father’s life away and she was was faced with the choice of dropping classes to be with him, or pressing on with school and missing some of his last moments.

She sought counsel from Dr. John Kenney, her analytical chemistry professor.

“We talked and prayed together, and I said there will be many semesters when you can retake this class, but only this time will be set aside for you to be at the bedside of your father,” Dr. Kenney remembers. “I reminded her that the order in which we do things is God first, then our family, then our professional life, which at her stage was school. I said, ‘This is a sacred Incomplete. You’re doing it for all the right reasons. It’s a higher call than the class. Go be at your father’s bedside. After that, come back and finish the class.’”

Miseker did just that, taking a semester off to walk through the last stages of her father’s life with him.

“Concordia was like family,” Miseker says. “That was so important and I’m indebted to the Concordia family. It was a really good community. Pastor Anderson, Dr. Mary Scott and all of them were very supportive.”

Dr. Kenney says Dr. Abate was “an incredible human being.”

“He was a holy man, is the best I can put it,” Kenney says. “He radiated the love of God to everyone around him and had a way of saying your name in a way that honored you. Miseker has exactly that same supernatural radiance. She is absolutely excellent by any standard, but her definitive characteristic is her supernatural, godly radiance that emanates from her.”

One residency interviewer asked what I was most proud of, and I answered that it was Concordia Irvine because it made me who I am, the go-getter.

Miseker had already decided to take her father’s recommendation to pursue medicine instead of theology, which he believed would allow her to have a practical impact while ministering the word of God. Concordia professors Dr. Michael Young, Dr. Ken Ebel and Dr. John Kenney were “instrumental in everything I did,” she says. “I’m so thankful for all my professors at Concordia.

I got a lot of research opportunities and people to mentor me and believe in me when I mentioned my big dreams. It made me continue to strive and never settle.”

After graduating from Concordia with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, Miseker returned to her father’s hometown in Ethiopia for six months to volunteer at the Pan-African Academy of Christian Surgeons.

“I had decided on medicine and was figuring out how I would go back and help, in what capacity,” Miseker says. “I very much enjoyed doing that. I lived in one of my aunt’s old homes, and walking back to that village you see so many street children. Every time I would go by, they would know I was not a local, and follow me. At times I took them to a restaurant and fed them. There were so many people with broken limbs, people that really needed access to health care and weren’t getting it.”

We talked and prayed together, and I said there will be many semesters when you can retake this class, but only this time will be set aside for you to be at the bedside of your father.

Dr. Kenney wrote a letter of recommendation for her medical school application and she received a full-tuition scholarship to UC Irvine medical school. In her first year, she planned a trip for ten UCI medical students to perform ultrasounds in Ethiopia. They raised $30,000, bought two ultrasound machines, held a feeding event for 300 children with a local restaurant and volunteered at a hospital to train 200 medical students in ultrasound use over six weeks.

Miseker Abate speaking to someone

Back at medical school, Miseker rotated through training in trauma surgery, heart surgery, minimally invasive surgery using robots, and much more. After three years she took one year off to earn a master’s degree in public health from Harvard on a presidential scholarship. She turned down invitations from similar programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale.

“That was the best year ever, the pinnacle of meeting every person I wanted to work with,” she says. “All my colleagues had very big dreams. Sometimes you talk about things you want to change in this world and people look at you like, ‘You can’t do that.’ This time, every time I mentioned an idea, everybody rushed to fulfill it.”

Harvard confirmed her desire to go into global surgery, and she enjoyed the opportunity to work with the ministries of health in Ethiopia and Rwanda on curriculum development for new medical schools. She returned to UCI to complete her medical degree and invited Dr. Kenney to speak at the big graduation celebration at her church.

When interviewing for surgical residency programs, Miseker always carried something special: her Concordia folder.

“One residency interviewer asked what I was most proud of, and I answered that it was Concordia Irvine because it made me who I am, the go-getter,” Miseker says. “Everything  hat has led to my success has been because of Concordia.”

She still carries her Concordia folder to every important meeting “because it reminds me of the start,” she says. “And it keeps everything together.”

She chose to do her residency at Cornell University because of its focus on global surgery, where surgeons work to increase access to safe and affordable surgical care for people in developing nations.

I think you’re going to see Miseker make a major impact in both medicine and Christian spirituality.

“It’s about creating a systematized plan for how to expand surgical services in these countries,” Miseker says. “I want to utilize my master’s of public health in the global surgery realm and continue to practice in the operating room, specializing in organ
transplant surgery.”

Developing countries lack access to care not because there aren’t capable people, but because of lack of opportunities, among other reasons.

“I have this unique position as an Ethiopian-American,” Miseker says. “I feel that with the right amount of effort and prayer, I can help bridge the gap between the numerous talented and creative people overseas and those who want to give them opportunities.

In developing countries there are not a lot of opportunities even for the smartest or those who work incredibly hard. I want to find ways to make that better.”

In her leisure time, Miseker has completed two full marathons and taught kick-boxing classes at a local fitness center during med school. Her mother works at Concordia Irvine in administrative services and has continued to travel the world to lead workshops and conferences on theology, women’s empowerment in Africa, and how Lutherans can better
engage people within African cultures. At home, she has served as director of the Board of Elders and Deaconess at the Ethiopian Lutheran Church Mekane Yesus.

“I would not be anywhere without my mother,” Miseker says. “She’s the strongest human I know. She is and has been our rock.”

One of Miseker’s younger brothers went to Stanford and works for Facebook as a programmer. The other is entering high school.

After Cornell, Miseker hopes to spend time at the World Health Organization in Geneva to learn more about expanding surgical access in African countries. Her father’s example continues to inspire her to overcome challenges.

“I think you’re going to see Miseker make a major impact in both medicine and Christian spirituality,” says Kenney. “I don’t think she fully appreciates just how special she is. She is the kind of person who can turn an entire nation around, or revolutionize health care and spiritual care in Africa.”

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