Dr. Said Ibrahim: Northwell recruits Somali-born physician leader with 'incredible flair'

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

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

"Here is a ticket back to Somalia."

The coach had expected his next center to be more than 7 feet tall. Ibrahim was 6-foot-8. Worse, he was too worn out to play well at his tryout immediately after his 48-hour journey to Cleveland State University in Ohio.

But the next morning, instead of boarding that flight, Ibrahim delivered a terse message of his own.

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

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

This month, the 59-year-old Ibrahim takes over as senior vice president of Northwell Health’s medicine service line, supervising medical services provided by more than 1,000 doctors, 500 residents and fellows and 1,500 support staffers throughout Northwell’s 23 hospitals and hundreds of outpatient facilities. He also is chair of the departments of medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset,


and the Donald & Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

Ibrahim will have a particular focus on addressing health-care disparities, according to Northwell.

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

Northwell’s recruitment of Ibrahim was the culmination of a national search, said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell. Ibrahim comes to Northwell from Weill Cornell Medicine, where he was professor of health care policy and research and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, among other roles. He also has taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and was chief of medicine at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

"He’s impeccably trained, and Northwell, given its size and scope, is very attractive to people who do health outcomes research," 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 earning $100 a month, watching helplessly as family members died from preventable illnesses.

The few doctors who made it to his town, he recalled, "were exceptionally appreciated and admired, to be honest with you, and that left an impression on me."

Ibrahim’s first big break came when he was recruited from a United Nations-supported high school to Somalia’s national basketball team.

In 1984, he was invited to a tryout in Cleveland after his Somali coach visited the United States and told a university coach there, "there’s this tall guy who might be useful to you."

After he flunked the tryout, Ibrahim said to the coach, "I'm actually more interested in getting an education, so why don't we just forget about the basketball and allow me to go to school?"

The coach replied, "absolutely not," Ibrahim recalled.

A university spokesman, David Kielmeyer, said in a statement on Monday, "Cleveland State University is pleased to learn that things ultimately worked out for Dr. Ibrahim. We congratulate him on his many accomplishments and wish him all the best."

With no contacts in Cleveland, Ibrahim wandered the streets with $30 in his pocket, eventually finding his way to a federal immigration office. He was referred to the Legal Aid Society, where the attorneys couldn’t represent him because at the time he did not have a green card, but one lawyer — a man from West Africa — let Ibrahim stay in his home. Later, a couple who learned of his plight paid 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 care executive.

The couple have two grown daughters and live in central Harlem. Ibrahim has never gone back to Somalia, since the civil war there makes it unsafe to return, he said. He became a naturalized United States citizen about 30 years ago.

Ibrahim has conducted NIH-funded research on health disparities for more than 20 years.

Northwell has a long tradition of serving a diverse population of patients in an egalitarian way, Ibrahim said. He said in addition to addressing health disparities — which he said occur by race as well as by socioeconomic status, gender and other factors — and seeking to provide health care in equitable ways, he also intends to focus on recruiting and mentoring diverse groups of medical students and health care professionals.

By doing so, he said, we make the profession reflective of the communities that we serve, and as a result, the communities that we serve would be more likely to trust us.

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