The Neurologist

Dr. Tenbit Emru blue pantsuit

When Tenbit was a teenager, her family immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. The political state of the country was uncertain and her dad wasn’t safe because he was a journalist. So, her family of 8 moved to the U.S. and settled in South Minneapolis.

One of the biggest cultural shifts for Tenbit was attending public school where there was no dress code. In Ethiopia, she went to a private Catholic school, run by nuns, and had to wear a uniform everyday.

It was never a question of whether or not Tenbit would go to college and graduate school. Her parents believed that she had to do better than them, so it wasn’t up for discussion.

Her mom was a nurse and a medical director of a community clinic, so that is where Tenbit was first exposed to the medical field. She knew she was going to be a doctor as early as elementary school, and attended the University of Minnesota as a pre-med student, studying psychology. Discovering that she needed research experience for her med school application, she applied for a position at the V.A. to do research with a clinical psychologist.

While Tenbit was at the V.A., she pitched the idea to translate the M.M.P.I. (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) to Amharic, the offical language of Ethiopia. The psychologist she was working for, told her that the pitch was a great thesis for a Ph.D. So, she applied for her Ph.D. and did the M.M.P.I. translation. When the translation was complete, she traveled to Ethiopia to present to college students to validate the cultural relevancy.

After completing her Ph.D., she then applied to medical school, knowing that she wanted to study the brain. She considered neurosurgery, but she thought that neurosurgeons rarely have much of a personal life, and family is very important to her. Considering her values, she chose neurology. She completed her residency in neurology at the U of M, as well as a 2 year fellowship in Neurocritical Care at the U of M.


She’s the Chair of the Neurology Department at HCMC. Her clinical practice includes managing critical neurologic and neurosurgical illnesses such as traumatic brain injury, severe strokes and seizures.

Her attention to style started during the days she spent in private school where she would paint her nails to add a little flair to her uniform. Her first job out of high school was at Sears and she started paying more attention to clothes and shoes.

It depends on her mood, but she generally likes to dress up. How she dresses sets her mood for the whole day. She’s usually overdressed, but doesn’t mind because that’s who she is. Her uniform always involves some sort of jacket. She loves shoes. It doesn’t matter if they make sense for her day ahead, if they’re cute, she’s wearing them!

She still has days, mostly weekend calls, where she wears scrubs all day. This is especially true when she’s working as a neuro-intensivist, providing care for ICU patients that have neurological issues.

Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? The Obamas. They’re an incredible power couple and have been through a lot. I would love to learn from their experiences.

Would you like to be famous?
I don’t know that I want to be famous, but I want to make an impact in some way. I want to make a difference in someone’s life in a significant way. On my deathbed I want to say: “I did that and it was good.” It will probably be something career-related.

Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
It depends on who I’m calling. If it’s a professional call or a difficult conversation, then yes. When I call to talk to my family, no.


What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Get up in the morning without the snooze button. Go to the gym. Get to work by 7:30 and get all the things done. Dinner with my husband and watch the news. And finally, talk to my family on the phone.

When did you last sing to yourself?
Sing? Never to someone else! I don’t remember.

If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
The mind, for sure. Speaking as a neurologist, the body without the mind is no way to live. I’d rather die early than live without my mind.

Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?
No (laughter). I have to tell you, I don’t think about that stuff. Since I have no control over it, it’s not worth thinking about.

What do you and your partner appear to have in common?
We like the same shows on Netflix, our politics & ideology and we like similar people.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
My health and my family. As an immigrant, I’ve seen more “have not” than “have” and it helps me appreciate and value what I do have.

I’m also grateful for my job because I’m valuable to human life. I help people come to terms with their illness and cure, or treat, when I can.

If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Now, I appreciate everything about how my parents raised me. I used to think they were strict. The way I was raised has everything to do with who I am today, and I love who I am.

If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
I’d like to be a charismatic public speaker.

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