Santa Rosa med student pauses education to start medical supply nonprofit
Rain battered Santa Rosa on Wednesday afternoon, but Tomas Tesfasilassie didn’t allow the winter weather to stymie his progress. He had work to do.
One by one, the 26-year-old and two helpers loaded cardboard boxes from his family’s suburban garage into a 10-foot moving truck, stacking them to the brim. An assortment of cartons totaling 20 pallets, filled with medical supplies valued at $2.3 million, already sits at the Port of Oakland awaiting the overseas voyage by cargo ship to Eritrea, the first shipment by Tesfasilassie’s 4-month-old nonprofit Supply The Change.
“Just bring one at a time, don’t drop anything,” Tesfasilassie, standing at the edge of the truck’s rear accepting another handoff, ribs one of his fellow laborers. “They need it.”
While on a trip to the East African nation in 2014, Tesfasilassie’s uncle suffered a stroke, and the family rushed him to the nearest hospital. They found the emergency room chaotic and lacking proper resources to treat the life-threatening condition. That forced last-minute fundraising to get him to a private clinic, but the week delay was costly, and he died within a month.
Tesfasilassie, who is of Eritrean descent but grew up next door in Ethiopia before immigrating to California with his family in 1998, returned home and came up with a plan. Rather than move through his fourth year of medical school at the UC San Francisco and then go to Harvard University for a master’s in public health as he’d intended, he settled on a gap year to form a nonprofit focused on getting donated supplies to lesser-developed countries in desperate need.
The newly formed Supply The Change is still in its infancy but has a board of directors and is well into its initial project. Partnering with Northern California-based Sutter Health, as well as UCSF, the group has amassed unused and surplus health care supplies such as sterile surgery implements, catheters and blood collection devices, and is preparing the first shipment for arrival to Eritrea in May.
A 2009 graduate of Santa Rosa’s Piner High School before attending UC Davis as an undergrad, Tesfasilassie credits UCSF’s program for including a social consciousness component in his medical training. During his first year, he helped organize a “white coat die-in” on campus where more than 150 members of the program peacefully laid on the sidewalk to highlight racial inequality in the nation’s health care system.
Between some prior volunteer work at a free community health clinic in Sacramento and an understanding of resource scarcity being an immigrant from a poverty-stricken region of the world, Tesfasilassie has witnessed how important the right tools in critical moments can be the difference between life and death.
“I’ve grown up understanding the value of medical resources,” he said. “So everything is kind of culminating into what I’m doing now.”
About a third of future doctors in the UCSF program put off completing their studies for a year to pursue related work outside the traditional track, according to its associate dean for students. Tesfasilassie’s path is unique from peers, however, because he didn’t join an existing venture and instead built one from the ground up.
“He created this de novo, this wasn’t in existence,” said Dr. Lee Jones, who is helping tailor Tesfasilassie’s career strategy. “What Tomas did was he saw a need and then spent a lot of very productive, thoughtful time asking, ‘How do we meet this need, who needs to be a part of this?’ He’s been able to pull together, in a very short time and a very dedicated way, a very cohesive plan of what he wants to accomplish and how he can do it.”
After he returns from a summer trip to Eritrea to welcome the delivery and ensure the startup is running smoothly, Tesfasilassie plans to head to Harvard in August, still overseeing Supply The Change as its chairman and CEO. From there, the goal is to not only maintain the relationship with Eritrea and its Ministry of Health to improve overall conditions, but add more Supply The Change chapters in the United States to aid other countries as well as low-income American cities struggling with similar health care deficiencies. Following the year at Harvard where he’ll earn his master’s in public health, he’ll finish his final year of med school at UCSF.
“The school is very supportive,” said Tesfasilassie, “but it’s kind of weird to see friends matching into residencies, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I could be doing that now.’ At the end of the day, what I’m doing and the purpose of it is more important than me becoming a doctor sooner.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.