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Hard work, education paying off for St. Luke’s intern from Africa

By Chris Langrill, News and Community
September 27, 2018
Koutam Haidara (left), an intern with St. Luke's Operations Improvement, meets with Tom Cahill, a St. Luke's project manager.

The way Koutam Haidara sees it, we’re all on different journeys.

“Some people go left, some go right, but we all wish to end up somewhere high,” Haidara said. “I will always have that dream of having a decent life and being someone who is educated. I’ve always had that intention, that belief that I can go where I see myself. … I’ve always had that belief, and I’m always fighting for it.”

Haidara is serving an internship in the Operations Improvement Department inside St. Luke’s Physician Services.

His journey to get to that internship is a rather unique story.

Haidara was originally from Ivory Coast in Africa, where he grew up surrounded by political instability and civil war. Later, his family moved to neighboring Mali.

“Mali was better, security-wise, but in a general sense … there were no opportunities to get an education, to get work,” he said. “A lot of poverty.”

In 2013, Haidara’s family was granted asylum to the United States.

At age 30, Haidara boarded a plane in Mali, which made a brief stop at JFK Airport in New York City before continuing on to Boise.

“When I grew up in Mali and thought of the United States I thought of big cities, millions of people,” he said. “When I came to Boise it was like a cultural shock: ‘I don’t see too many people … maybe this isn’t part of the United States.’”

Settling in

After that initial shock wore off, he began to adjust to his new life.

“I started to like it,” he said.

Kaidara’s first language is French, so he began to learn English and attended workshops and orientations that helped him adapt to the new culture and gave him an avenue to find a job.

He got a job at the Boise Airport, all the while knowing he wanted more.

“I came to the conclusion that the only way for me to have the life that I want for myself is to get some education,” Haidara said. “I don’t know how to use my hands, I’m not an artist. I don’t have those skills. But I know I’m smart.”

His job at the airport didn’t have a fixed schedule, so when he heard about an opportunity as a custodian at St. Luke’s he jumped at it.

“The hours were from 4:30 (p.m.) to 1 a.m., so I thought, ‘Actually, this is the best job for me,’” he said. “I knew the smart thing to do was to keep working here and get my education.”

And that’s exactly what he has done for the past few years, while also earning tuition reimbursement from St. Luke’s. He worked full time by night and attended classes at Boise State by day. In a three-and-a-half year span he will have earned his bachelor’s degree in business and economic analytics.

Along the way, Haidara interacted with a few of St. Luke’s doctors – and began making impressions.

“He was a night-time janitor and cleaned our offices,” said Dr. Mark Weinrobe, a St. Luke’s internist. “He was just bright and always smiled. He seemed very outgoing and gregarious.”

Dr. Weinrobe became intrigued by Haidara and his background, and he learned that Haidara was going to school while also working full time.

“The next thing I know he’s doing calculus during his lunch hour at work,” Dr. Weinrobe said. “I thought that was really out there. He was obviously enthusiastic about the educational process.”

Eventually, the two began having a give-and-take about Haidara’s education.

“I would give him books on economics and he would read them and come right back with questions,” Dr. Weinrobe said. “He’s just a very forward-looking person.”

Eventually, a few doctors, including Dr. Weinrobe, reached out to Daniel Silver, the senior director of the Operations Improvement Department, about the possibility of finding an internship for Haidara.

The timing was perfect.

“I literally had just come out of a meeting where I said we might need an intern,” Silver said.

A new role

Haidara began his internship in July, and Silver was immediately impressed.

“One of the unique things we are trying to build up in our department … is that we find talent in creative places,” Silver said.

And Silver said each person can bring new perspectives to his department. That’s certainly been the case with Haidara, who became a United States citizen on Sept. 17.  

“No matter what your role – even coming from an environmental services/custodian role – people might think: What would they know about operations improvement?” Silver said. “But sometimes those are the people who may know the most, because they can see the inner workings from a point of view that the rest of us never get a chance to.

“So, learning from Koutam has been great, because he has a much different perspective than anybody else on our team.”

And that different perspective has turned out to be valuable.

“One of the things I love to do … is just pose a question to him: ‘Hey, here is a problem that we’re trying to solve. How would you approach this?’” Silver said. “So, he will go home at night, and the next morning he will have done all of this research, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, here’s another way to think about this.’

“He’s broadening our horizons, too. One day, he encouraged us to try Ethiopian food, so he took us all out to an Ethiopian restaurant. It was a great time.”

For his part, Haidara is just thankful to be given the opportunity to contribute.

“I enjoy it. It’s not just data analysis,” he said. “To talk and ask questions, that aspect I enjoy even more than the data analysis.”

Haidara said he appreciates that St. Luke’s has allowed him to learn and advance.

“I like the culture here,” he said. “You talk to people that work for different organizations, and you get the sense that they feel like they’re just numbers. … I’ve never felt that way at St. Luke’s. I matter and I’m a human being.

“The people I work with right now, they tell me, ‘Anything you want, just ask.’ It’s like a family. It’s the perfect environment to grow.”

To say the least, Haidara’s internship has been a success. In fact, it’s been such a success that it’s been extended. His internship was effectively supposed to end at the end of August, but it has been extended to continue throughout the school year.

“It’s the quintessential American success story,” Dr. Weinrobe said. “It’s just so beautiful to see that the people around him have recognized that he’s a special person.”

When asked if there is any advice he would share with those reading this, Haidara said, “Remember that whether you think you can or can’t, you are right. Just believe in yourself and try. Anything is possible.”

About The Author

Chris Langrill is a writer and copy editor for the St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing department.

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