Gillette Children's employee moves up from custodian to nurse

From a young age, we are told we can do anything we set our minds to. But as the years go by we learn that time, money and other obligations can get in the way.

Not so for an employee at Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.

Hakeem Abdulwahab is living the story of an American Dream come true. As a nurse, he is a favorite among staff and patients at Gillette Children’s.

“I just smile all the time and make people happy,” Abdulwahab said.

15 years ago, his dream of coming to the United States from Ethiopia was just that, a dream.  

“When I got my visa, it was a dream. It was just a dream,” Abdulwahab said.

Abdulwahab was born into a large, but poor family in Ethiopia. In his early 20’s, he decided to try to come to America so he could make money to send back home. 

“Every month, because I have 8 siblings, so imagine my mom and dad. And getting that Green Card lottery is like a Powerball for me because I believe that if I work hard, I can make a difference,” Abdulwahab said.

When Abdulwahab arrived in Minnesota, his first job was at a McDonald’s. There, he met a nurse, and his now-mentor, who worked at Gillette Children’s.

“I would always drive by the McDonald’s on Rice Street, just to pick up a happy meal, to take home to the kids. And he worked in the drive-through and we would sit and chat,” said Dr. Tammy Sinkfield-Morey, a nursing supervisor at Gillette Children’s.

Sinkfield-Morey encouraged Abdulwahab to get a job in the hospital’s housekeeping department and he was hired on the spot.

“If you go back all the way when I came here in 2004, I don't have a car, I don't have all the degrees, I don't even have a driver's license. I just started from the bottom,” Abdulwahab said.

To make enough money Abdulwahab kept his job at McDonald’s. He worked the drive through during the day, and in the halls of Gillette as a custodian overnight. He only got 3 to 4 hours of sleep each night.

Years later, however, Abdulwahab's coworkers encouraged him to go to school for a nursing degree.

He did.

“Am I able to do it. Am I able to provide. Am I good enough. Sometimes you need to believe in yourself. That is the first key for your success,” Abdulwahab said.

Abdulwahab no longer works at McDonald’s. He spends his days at Gillette Children’s with his patients.

“I think he won this lottery and he knew the blessing of that lottery. He knew the fortune of that lottery,” Sinkfield-Morey said.

“They say, the sky is the limit. If you work very hard in this country, there is nothing that will stop you,” Abdulwahab said.

Abdulwahab was born with a different name, but when he became a citizen, he changed it to “Hakeem” which means “caretaker” or “healer.”  

He is now working on his bachelor's degree and could someday get a job in management.