Setting Records and Saving Lives: Hailu Ebba, MD
Feb 28, 2022 Jasmine Aimaq
Beating the odds—and the clock
Few athletes rise high enough in their sport to compete in the Olympics. Fewer still achieve greatness on the global sports stage and then go on to become an esteemed physician at a world-renowned medical center.
Dr. Hailu Ebba not only accomplished both, but he may be the only living Black doctor to have cracked a notorious barrier in track and field: the four-minute mile. It happened against all odds.
"I never imagined I would become an Olympian. I never imagined I would become a doctor, either."
"I had few role models growing up," says Dr. Ebba, an anesthesiologist at Cedars-Sinai with a special interest in critical care. The second of 11 children, Dr. Ebba grew up on a farm outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "I never imagined I would become an Olympian. I never imagined I would become a doctor, either."
On track to success
Medicine and the Olympics may seem completely unrelated, but the Olympics are what ignited Dr. Ebba's interest in medicine.
He'd immigrated to the U.S. after a happy time as a high-school exchange student in California, seeking opportunity. And the opportunities came.
Dr. Ebba had been a top student back home in Ethiopia, skipping grades and excelling in athletics and academics alike. In the U.S., he found support that helped him pursue his love of track and field while honing his intellectual passions, which ranged from math and science to languages and writing.
He was studying at Oregon State University when he learned he would represent Ethiopia in the 1500-meter race at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
"I truly believe I would not have become a doctor if I hadn't competed in that event," he says.
By that time, Dr. Ebba had already made history as the first Ethiopian to run "the mile," as it's known. He had posted a time of 3:59.3 seconds and set an Ethiopian national record while competing for Oregon State.
It almost didn't happen. The Munich Games were struck by tragedy when members of the Black September terrorist group stormed the apartments where the Israeli team was staying in the Olympic Village. The attack lasted days and left 11 Israeli athletes dead.
"I heard the gunshots from my residence," Dr. Ebba recalls, still shaken at the memory. "It was horrific, and I couldn't imagine going on with the games when my fellow athletes had been massacred. It was impossible to feel joy."
Respect and compassion for the victims nearly led him to withdraw. But the games went on, and the competitor in him still wanted to do his best in honor of his coaches, those who had supported him and the country of his birth.
But it was someone else's performance that marked a turning point for Dr. Ebba. A fellow runner had performed what seemed to be a miracle: After falling down and losing valuable time, the man not only got up and won his race, but he also set a record and went on to win another event.
Stories began to circulate about performance enhancement, and Dr. Ebba eventually learned about blood doping. Some athletes were finding ways to elevate the amount of hemoglobin in their bloodstream.
"Hemoglobin is an oxygen-carrying protein. So if you have more of it, it increases the supply of oxygen to your muscles," he explains. "The result is a dramatic advantage in events that require prolonged stamina, like long-distance running."
Dr. Ebba was intrigued. What was the relationship of blood to energy? How did blood work, exactly? And if athletes could use it to cheat, might there be other, more noble uses for enhancing blood?
He went on to receive a master's in science in zoology, studying how blood is formed and regulated. He later attended medical school in Michigan, where he worked in both the intensive care unit (ICU) and the laboratory of Dr. Robert Bartlett, who pioneered the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine.
Being exposed to that groundbreaking technology propelled Dr. Ebba to pursue critical care medicine. He soon realized he had found his calling. He realized something else, too: He didn't like cold weather.
Looking back while looking ahead
As a sought-after doctor, Dr. Ebba eventually landed in Los Angeles and came to Cedars-Sinai on the recommendation of a friend: world-renowned brain surgeon Dr. Keith L. Black, who holds the Ruth and Lawrence Harvey Chair in Neuroscience at Cedars-Sinai.
With a rewarding career, a happy home, a wonderful wife and four thriving children, Dr. Ebba's life is good. But a part of his heart remains in Ethiopia. He has never forgotten the farm where he learned to take care of cattle and ride horses. He still talks of his grandfather, who as a young man headed to Ethiopia's southern border to fight the invading Italians.
"Instead of harming captured spies or soldiers, he would make them teach languages and crafts, such as how to build houses or water wells for the locals," Dr. Ebba says. "He understood the importance of using opportunities to serve the greater good. I always longed to return to Ethiopia and share my expertise, but a succession of repressive regimes made it impossible."
Ethiopia is making progress toward democracy today, and there is reason for hope despite ongoing civil unrest and an uncertain future. "In recent years, I have helped build emergency departments and ICUs and have taught critical care in Addis Ababa," says Dr. Ebba.
While the pandemic has interrupted his plans, he will resume them as soon as he can. And if there's one thing Dr. Ebba knows, it's how to bring his ideas to life and turn his plans into realities most people could only dream of.