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San Francisco, California
Clinical fellow, oncology
Department of Medicine, University of California San FranciscoVIEW PROFILE
When Dame Idossa, M.D. (I ’19), was a child in Ethiopia, the professionals she saw looked like her, and she looked like them. That wasn’t the case when her family moved to the U.S. She had more difficulty seeing herself in the career she envisioned. The trajectory of her life changed when she participated in a Minnesota Future Doctors program at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic. She says the experiences she had in the program allowed her to dream and explore possibilities, including training at Yale and Mayo Clinic. Dr. Idossa is now a clinical fellow in oncology at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), specializing in breast cancer. After her fellowship, she plans to work in academic medicine, treating breast cancer and researching ways to narrow disparities in breast cancer.
“The second year of the Future Doctors program was spent at Mayo Clinic. I worked with various physicians, took courses, did research and had a wonderful experience. I liked the patient-centeredness, approachability and kindness of Mayo physicians and wanted to emulate them. They made us college students feel like we belonged. The Future Doctors Program had a huge impact on my life and trajectory.”
I’m the first in my family to pursue medicine. Growing up – first in Ethiopia and then in Richfield, Minnesota, beginning when I was 8 — I enjoyed science courses. I wanted a career where I could help people, and medicine incorporated science and helping. My interest was solidified during college in a Minnesota Future Doctors program through the University of Minnesota Medical School and Mayo Clinic. We learned about medical subspecialties, participated in research, took courses and prepared for the MCAT. It was a great pipeline program and showed me what my career could look like. That program, along with mentors at various institutions, was instrumental in helping me navigate that path. Students in the internship program became peer mentors to each other.
I went to the University of Minnesota for my undergraduate degree. I applied there and one other school in the Twin Cities. My sister had gone to the U of M, and someone I knew at church had gone to the other school I applied to. I didn’t even know that people did college tours. You only know what you’re exposed to.
When we lived in Ethiopia, I was part of a community where people who looked like me could be anything. I didn’t have a stereotype of what a Black woman could or could not be. It was odd when I came to the U.S. and no one looked like me. I had one Black teacher between grades 3 and 12. I didn’t see Black women in academia or medicine. I wrote a blog on Medscape about this experience:
“I was lucky enough to have a childhood in which people who looked like me were doctors, scientists, teachers or anything else they wanted to be. I grew up watching people in my community go into various professions. This normalized Black excellence, achievement and choice for me. When I moved to the United States at age 8, I suddenly became racially minoritized, and finding people who looked like me in medicine became nearly impossible. I did not come across a Black physician until almost a decade later when I started college. Fortunately, my formative years and the support I had from my family allowed me to continue to dream that I could one day become a physician.”
I went to medical school at Yale School of Medicine and residency at Mayo Clinic. The experiences I had in college allowed me to dream. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wouldn’t have known Yale and Mayo were possible.
The second year of the Future Doctors program was spent at Mayo Clinic. I worked with various physicians, took courses, did research and had a wonderful experience. I liked the patient-centeredness, approachability and kindness of Mayo physicians and wanted to emulate them. They made us college students feel like we belonged. The Future Doctors Program had a huge impact on my life and trajectory. I’m a big proponent of mentorship to increase the number of historically excluded students in medicine. If you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t see it as an option for you. One of my mentees just graduated from Harvard Medical School and is in pediatrics residency in Washington, D.C.
I had a phenomenal residency experience and made great friends. I wasn’t sure what subspecialty I was interested in and decided pretty late. I’m pursuing oncology but hadn’t considered it in medical school. The experiences and opportunities I had at Mayo Clinic played a huge role in that decision.
I fell in love with oncology during my second year of residency. In the outpatient clinic, I saw patients who were seven to 10 years out from treatment, and the impact their oncologists had on their lives. I loved seeing the close, intimate interactions between oncologist and patient. You get to be there at one of the scariest times of their lives. I wanted the opportunity to have close relationships with patients.
On the inpatient side, you still see the close relationships, even when things aren’t going well. But you can help, be there for patients, and guide them through scary times and suffering. I wanted to have a career like that.
I did research with Ayalew Tefferi, M.D. (HEM ’89), Division of Hematology, is a fantastic hematologist and brilliant leader in hematologic malignancies.
Clinically, I worked with Kathryn Ruddy, M.D. (ONCL ’13), Division of Medical Oncology in breast oncology; and Brian Costello, M.D. (ADGM ’99, HEMO ’09), Division of Medical Oncology, in genitourinary oncology.
A life mentor is Rhama Warsame, M.D. (I ’13, HEMO ’17), Division of Hematology, who was a senior fellow when I started. She was wonderful at helping me figure out how to navigate at Mayo Clinic and what to think about when applying for a subspecialty.
A peer mentor is Narjust Duma, M.D. (HEMO ’19), who is now at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a fellow when I was a resident. We have similar interests in health disparities work and collaborated — and continue to collaborate — on projects.
“The needs of the patient come first” was instilled in me. When you approach everything through that lens, it helps guide your decisions. I continue to do that to this day.
I am completing a medical oncology fellowship at the University of California San Francisco and am now also doing an NIH T32 fellowship in the Division of Epidemiology. I’ve wanted to move to California since medical school. This was a good time in life for me to move to California. I lacked county hospital experience when I was at Mayo Clinic, and UCSF has that integrated into its site. Working with that patient population has been one of my favorite things about training at UCSF.
I’m finishing my third year in oncology, subspecializing in breast cancer. Patients with breast cancer tend to do really well compared to other cancers.
My research interests are in the realm of health disparities and equity. I recall watching “Unnatural Causes,” a documentary examining the root causes of socioeconomic and racial inequities in health. It disturbs me that ethnic and racial minority groups have poorer outcomes for most diseases, even in a developed country that spends more on health care than most other countries. The work to point out these disparities has been ongoing for decades, and we still haven’t fully eliminated these disparities. It’s difficult to close the gaps, which involve systemic problems in society and health care. I want to continue working in that space, learn from people who have been doing the work much longer, and figure out how to build systems that are more equitable and allow all of our patients to achieve the same level of health outcomes.
Black women have the highest mortality of breast cancer than other racial and ethnic groups. They encounter systemic racism in health care in almost every interaction with the medical system. Their mammogram rates are higher than other groups (pre-COVID) by some measures, but their ability to access specialized diagnostic equipment or breast imaging specialists are lower. This can lead to potential delays in diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Equity doesn’t mean the exact same outcomes. Rather, it addresses structural issues and removes barriers.
I’d like to be in an academic medical center, treating breast cancer and researching ways to narrow the disparities in breast cancer. I’d like to work in a community with patients who identify as similar to me, possibly immigrant populations. I like working with patients who are from low-resource settings.
I took a fifth year in medical school to do a Stanford/Yale Global Health Fellowship that took me to various countries, including Ethiopia, where I helped to develop a health training guide for nurses who care for vulnerable children.
Outside of my CV, I’m most proud of my son, and for having traveled to 30 countries by age 30.
Learn what’s most important to you, whether it’s a hobby or something unrelated to work, and make time for it during your training. If you don’t, you won’t have an outlet outside of work. In oncology, I see patients who have postponed activities and trips until after retirement or some later date, and tomorrow isn’t always guaranteed. Whatever it is you enjoy, make time for it now.
I have a 9-month-old son, so I spend a lot of time with him. I started baking during the pandemic and do that when I have time.
As a trainee especially, there are many demands on my time, and I feel pulled in different directions. I try to focus on what’s most important in my life, and that helps me prioritize. Spending time with my son rejuvenates me. I try to be mindful of being with him between during the evenings and then finish up my work. I’m still trying to figure it all out.
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