How to Find Yourself Through Service
June 13, 2016

Life of Service_AAIUH HSA Commencement from Dr. Hassan A. Tetteh on Vimeo.

Transcript of Commencement Address to 2016 Graduates of the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, Health Science Academy

Before the Gospel according to John and after the Gospel according to Mark is the Gospel of Luke, and the 48th verse of the 12th chapter of that gospel says, “To whom much is given; much is expected”. Your presence here today on this auspicious day in this venue suggests that you all must have received much in life.

The first part of that passage in Luke, “To whom much is given; much is expected” is often quoted– but what is often left out is the end of the paragraph—it says “The more one has had entrusted to him the more he will be required to repay”.

Dr. Browne, Dr. Valmont, Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues— and especially the graduates of the Health Science Academy you all have all been entrusted with much! Get ready to repay! Unfortunately, life does not accept VISA, MasterCard, or American Express- Service is the rent you pay for living in this world.

So, what are you going to do with this one precious life of yours?

I was born here in Brooklyn, graduated from Brooklyn Tech and thought I had things figured out… I wanted to be a doctor. I went to college worked hard, tried to get good grades and struggled… I worried all the while about finding myself, learned lessons about a life of service, and discovered the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

I learned that a commitment to a life of service guarantees 3 things:

  1. Great things will happen in your life
  2. You will create an enduring legacy
  3. You will meet and exceed expectations in your life

I have personally witnessed how answering life’s most urgent question “what are you doing for others?” can help you accomplish great things, create an enduring legacy and allow you to exceed expectations.

When I graduated high school; I was prepared to go to college and EXPECTED to go to Morehouse where I was accepted—However, I did not have enough money and could not afford to go, and instead went to SUNY Plattsburgh, a small arts and science state college, far up north by the Canadian border—it was a blessing; being so far from civilization, I didn’t have much to do– so I studied.

I also became active in student government and served the student body and as a result met with several school lead administrators that learned about my background. One of the professors, Dr. Skopp, encouraged me to consider a career in public service. As an undergrad, he told me about the Kennedy School and I summarily concluded after sending away for information that I had no chance of ever getting into Harvard– But Dr. Skopp always cared about my career and believed in me. Even after graduating college, he would on occasion contact me, check in, and remind about the Kennedy School.

Many years later, I finally applied and was accepted to the Kennedy School but had lost touch with Dr. Skopp. While in Boston, I learned from another college professor that Dr. Skopp had been diagnosed with an advanced cancer and was not expected to live much longer… I contacted him and learned that he needed a specialist in thoracic surgery, and I had just happen to meet a physician from Boston that was now practicing at Dartmouth close to where Dr. Skopp was- I provided the introduction for Dr. Skopp to the physician and he received excellent care. I am happy to say that now several years after reconnecting with Doug Skopp, (he now insists that I stop calling him Dr. Skopp) and over 20 years after he decided to care, take interest in, and encourage a young kid from Brooklyn- Doug is alive and well. He recently completed a book called Shadows Walking, spends precious days with his grandchildren, and speaks all over the country to individuals about cancer survival! I saw him recently and he sent me an email days ago that ended with he line, “Every day is a gift … for all of us!” I’m sure Doug could never had done the calculus or predicted how a small act of answering life most urgent question could have come back to help him in so many ways.

When you dedicate your life to service great things will happen in your life…

The powerful effects of answering life’s most urgent question became most real to me during serving this country.

After medical school, I joined the Navy; and after general surgery residency EXPECTED to complete a thoracic surgery fellowship—but the Navy had other plans; after 9-11, very few surgeons were allowed to go directly into fellowship, instead most were deployed. I was assigned to a ship as the general surgeon, and remember thinking . . . “I didn’t join the Navy to go on a ship”.

I spent 22 months on the ship and for 19 of those months we were out to sea. It was the loneliest, difficult, and most stressful time of my life; it was also the greatest time of my life; I served with 6000 other “volunteers” that were dedicated to a cause and felt the same fears I did; Years later I would join thousands others in a different kind of campaign in the deserts of Afghanistan supporting the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces . . . “I never EXPECTED that on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, I would be half way around the world in Afghanistan caring for Marines in a tent”. I returned from deployment forever changed and inspired to write about my experience that became the inspiration for my book ‘Gifts of the Heart’. It was not what I expected, but our expectations in life very seldom indicate the pathway in which we will travel.

When you dedicate yourself to service you will create an enduring legacy…

While serving overseas I read a lot of books.  One of the most influential was about a Jewish psychiatrist that was imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1940’s. He was number 119,104 and he EXPECTED to die. However over time, he began to find meaning in his and his fellow prisoners circumstance. He provided SERVICE to his fellow inmates, encouraged them to have HOPE for a future—since they were still alive, and he even quoted Nietzsche: “Das was uns nich merken wis staker totet”– “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger”. The SERVICE he provided to his fellow prisoners undoubtedly helped, but His greatest SERVICE was the contribution he made to mankind. Dr. Vicktor Frankl, number 119,104 gave us logo therapy and the book Man’s Search for Meaning—

When you dedicate yourself to service, you will meet and exceed expectations…

Dr. Frankl taught me and helped me understand that it -did –not- really -matter what I EXPECTED from life, but rather/What Did Matter/ is what life EXPECTED from me.

Serving on the ship for 22 months or in the desert tent were not necessarily what I EXPECTED, but it WAS in those moments what LIFE expected of me.

THE GREATEST AMONG US ALL RISE and EXCEED ALL EXPECTATIONS because they dedicate themselves to service, leave a legacy, embrace life- become engaged, and take on obstacles as opportunities.


1.            DEDICATE your life to answering life’s most urgent question:

“WHAT am I doing for others?” By doing so great things will happen in your life, you will create an enduring legacy, and you will exceed expectations.

2.            EXPECT AND PLAN to have challenges and view them all as opportunities, understanding, “Das was uns nich merken wis staker totet”–“that which does not kill me makes me stronger”.

3.            BE GRATEFUL to all the people who helped you along the way. You are all someone’s favorite unfolding story…

Don’t wait until you make it to the top to help others. If you wait until you you get to the top of the ladder to help others you will be to tired and old to help anyone else.  By helping people along your journey they will give you energy, push you, and help you to climb even higher…  If you are in high school reach down to middle school, if you are in college reach down and help someone in high school. If you are in medical school reach down and help others… If you are a parent, doctor, or accomplished in you field reach back and help the next generation…

As the great Arthur Ashe once said,

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can”… Serve.


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The End of Heart Attacks: An Empowering Guide for Women
February 22, 2016

According to the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States and accounts for over 375,000 lives lost per year. For women in minority populations the risk of death from heart disease is even higher. Every year, heart disease causes more deaths in the United States than accidents, homicide, diabetes, and all forms of cancer combined, and the cost of cardiovascular disease and stroke exceeds $310 billion annually.

So, why is empowering women to care for their heart so important?

Unlike my male patients who may complain of chest pain, abdominal pain, indigestion, dizziness, and shortness of breath which are often telltale signs of a heart attack, many women may have heart attacks without the classic symptom of chest pain and many reported only fatigue. A woman’s heart attack can be subtle, vary from person to person, and classic signs may be nonexistent in some cases. With knowledge and awareness of risk factors and symptoms (or lack thereof) you will be empowered to become a partner in your heart health, and in turn empower others to do the same.

Some risk factors for developing heart disease such as age, heredity, and gender cannot be controlled. However, the following 6 major risk factors are controllable:

  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Lack of exercise
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Being overweight and obese
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • High blood pressure

Your chances of developing heart disease are higher the more risk factors you have. The positive news is empowered with good information you can take control of your health, prevent heart disease, and live healthy. Remember these simple “Four E’s” to promote your heart health:

Exercise - Exercise is essential for heart health. Talk with a health care professional before you begin any exercise program, and simply walking more each day is a great start. Regular daily exercise of 20-30 minutes reduces blood pressure, and can lower cholesterol, burn body fat, relieve depression, and increase confidence and self-esteem.

Eat Healthy – A balanced diet low in salt, fats, and cholesterol is the recipe for heart health. Moderation is the key to healthy eating. Too much salt, fat, and cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease. Increased intake of fiber, and water rich fruits and vegetables keep your weight under control and increases your energy.

Eliminate- Tobacco smoking, (including secondhand smoke) led to over 6.2 million worldwide deaths in 2010.  The chemicals in tobacco products damage heart vessels and restrict the flow of life-giving blood to the heart. Not smoking eliminates one of the top risk factors that contribute to heart disease.

Empowerment – Take action. Assess and control your risk factors for heart disease such as blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol level and be empowered to make healthy lifestyle choices. Become your own healthcare advocate. Ask informed questions of your doctors and healthcare providers and be a partner in achieving total heart health.

For more information, visit:

“A Woman’s Heart Attack: Why and How It Is Different than a Man’s Heart Attack”:


The American Heart Association:

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Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King Day: Never Sacrifice the Gift
January 18, 2016

“If I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now . . .” -MLK

Seven years ago, a new life began for me. I reflected on the gift of Dr. King’s life and how I had come full circle in my new office, of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Department, at National Naval Medical Center, (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Over a decade earlier, after medical school, I arrived at National Naval Medical Center as a new recruit, and took the oath that would commit me to a life of service in the U.S. Navy. On the day after Dr. King’s memorial I returned to where it all had started for me, and thought how all the events I experienced brought me to this place.

On that same day, seven years ago, a very similar drama and narrative was being played out just miles away. On January 20, 2009, not only was LCDR Hassan Tetteh, an African American heart surgeon reporting for his first day of duty at Naval Hospital, but a young man, Barack Obama, also an African American, was taking the presidential oath of office and reporting for his first day of duty as well. I wondered as a sat thinking forward of my great task ahead, how President Obama must have felt looking forward to his great task ahead. I also reflected on the special circumstances of the events; mine at Naval hospital, his on the steps of the capital, just a day after celebrating the memory of the man who once told a congregation that if he could live in any moment of time, he would choose the time he had. Dr. King said to the Almighty, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy”.  I believe Dr. King understood his purpose and also knew his task was inextricably connected to the period of time he was living in.

It is unlikely that Dr. King would have his place in history, had he lived in another time of the world. This insight captivated me, and as I recognized the significance of the time I was living in, my leadership challenge became that of negotiating my purpose in that context. I believe it was no coincidence that I came full circle to the place where it all began for me, during a period of great change, on a historical day celebrating the man who contributed to make my present condition, and that of President Obama a reality.

The appreciation of the significance of my circumstance filled me with gratitude for the work that others had done, and moved me to think critically of how I would do my part to not “sacrifice the gift”. The urgent sense of responsibility overwhelmed me on that day, and perhaps it is most appropriate that many choose to spend the day in service to others. The opportunities created by those that suffered necessitate that I do more every day. During his Mountain Top Sermon, Dr. King preached to a disenfranchised crowd, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination”. They had much less opportunity than I now have, and yet they were called upon to march on and do great things. When asked, where does an individual go to get the courage to act? My answer is this- those that have gone before me to make things possible had it much harder than I did, and yet marched on. This is where my courage must come from. “To whom much is given, much is expected”.


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