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Mohamed’s journey from farming in Somalia to working in a Minneapolis operating room

M Health
Friday January 14, 2022

M Health Fairview Nurse Mohamed Jama Mohamed, RN, endured severe burns while fleeing the Somali Civil War. He received lifechanging care as a refugee in Kenya, inspiring him to a career in healthcare.

Mohamed Jama Mohamed left his home in Somalia 30 years ago but he still remembers exact dates: The day he suffered third-degree burns while transporting gasoline. The day he boarded a cargo ship to Kenya. The day he met Florence Lantari, the nurse who changed his life.
And the day he started work as an operating room nurse at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center – 10 years after leaving Somalia. For Mohamed, the job is a dream come true. But it wasn’t the end of his journey. Three years ago, he also founded his own international healthcare nonprofit with support from colleagues.

Inspired by his own story, Healthcare Extension Promotion and Training Organization (HEPTO) provides medical supplies and training in Somalia, Ethiopia, and soon Kenya – thanks to a chance reunion with Mohamed’s former nurse, Florence.
Read on to learn more about Mohamed’s experience.

February 1991
“I was a farmer, and I also worked for the agriculture department,” said Mohamed. “I was 24 years old. I enjoyed my job. I was at the peak of my life. Then, the war started in Somalia. Everyone grabbed what they could and left.”

The evening of Feb. 1, 1991, Mohamed prepared to leave his village and travel to the coast. He and a friend were pouring gasoline into containers for extra fuel on the road when someone came in the room with an open flame. A spark flew and before he knew it, Mohamed’s clothes were burning. He ran outside and threw himself on the ground to put out the flames. Although he survived, he suffered third-degree burns on a third of his body.

There was no adequate medical care available in his village, so Mohamed and his friend continued with their plan and travelled to the port city of Kismayo – Mohamed curled up in pain in the truck bed.

April 1991
Mohamed stayed in Kismayo for two months. The hospital had turned into a refugee camp, and only limited treatment was available. The doctors didn’t have burn cream, but a local veterinarian treated him with a similar product for animals. It was clear he would need advanced care elsewhere, but it was difficult to find a way out of the city.

In April, a cargo ship left Kismayu for Kenya. Mohamed walked from the hospital to the harbor and secured a place on deck.

May 1991
The ship arrived in Kenya and Mohamed traveled to the capitol, Nairobi. From there, a fellow traveler took him to Isiolo, another town where he could finally receive proper treatment for his burns.

"I didn’t have any papers or documentation. I was prepared to be rejected, or arrested and taken to a refugee camp,” he said. “None of that happened. They treated me the same as other people. They performed skin grafts, and that’s when I met Florence.”

At the time, Florence Lantari was a young nurse at Isiolo General Hospital. When she realized Mohamed couldn’t speak the local language, she transferred him to a room with a television so he wouldn’t feel so alone. Every morning, she brought him fruit from her home. When Mohamed was discharged, Florence helped him find transportation to Nairobi. Once he was back in the capitol, Mohamed started the refugee resettlement process.

December 1992
Mohamed arrived in the United States in the middle of winter. Although he worked in agriculture in Somalia, his experience in Isiolo inspired him to return to school and get a medical degree. He studied to become a surgical technician, and later went back to school for nursing.

January 2001
Mohamed started as a nurse at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center a decade after leaving Somalia. To this day, he works to go above and beyond for every patient, remembering how Florence’s exceptional care helped him heal. Mohamed focuses on caring for the whole person – the way Florence did when he was a refugee in Kenya.

June 2018
Throughout his career at M Health Fairview, Mohamed has helped many fellow Somali refugees through surgery – staffing the operating room and providing compassionate pre- and post-surgery care. In 2018, he decided to go one step further by starting HEPTO.

Since its founding, HEPTO has delivered several shipments of medical equipment to Somalia and has sent teams to hospitals across Ethiopia to help train local doctors and provide them with much-needed medical supplies. After launching in Somalia and Ethiopia, Mohamed hoped to expand operations to Kenya.

It was around this time that a twist of fate reconnected him with Florence, who had recently retired from Isiolo General Hospital.

June 2021
On an ordinary summer evening, Mohamed had guests over to his home in Eagan, Minnesota. As he was sharing the story of his time in Kenya, a friend’s sister mentioned that she used to work at Isiolo General Hospital. The next morning, she sent Mohamed a Kenyan phone number.

"’That’s Florence’s number,’ she told me. I texted to say, ‘Florence Lantari, you don’t know me. We met in September 1991. I’ve been looking for you for 30 years,’” said Mohamed. “She called right away.”

The pair caught up, discussing their careers in nursing, their lives across the Atlantic, and HEPTO.

August 2021
"Life is very short. I decided to go see Florence in August. We met several times while I was in Kenya. I thanked her in person and was able to meet her family,” said Mohamed. “I decided my story with Florence shouldn’t be ended. She agreed to help HEPTO expand our outreach to Kenya.”

With support from Florence and from his M Health Fairview colleagues, Mohamed is planning treatment missions to East Africa – training doctors and nurses and bringing medical care to regions that don’t currently have access.
Over three decades and two continents, Mohamed is amazed at the far-reaching impacts of the care he’s both given and received.

"Through healthcare, you touch the lives of everyone in the world,” said Mohamed.


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