The PAA honors Addisu for his contributions to leadership and patient care
By Katie Ginder-Vogel
Photos by Jon Fleming
Berook Addisu (PharmD ’10) was the first-ever health-system pharmacy administration resident at the William S. Middleton Veterans Memorial Hospital when there was an opening for the associate chief of pharmacy. He helped with recruiting and participated in candidate interviews but didn’t consider applying for the role himself.
“Being in a department of over 120 people as a resident, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” Addisu says. “Going from there to the No. 2 in charge wasn’t even on my radar. I did not think I was qualified to be that person.”
Addisu eventually applied, interviewed, and landed the job, where he assisted the chief of pharmacy, Andrew Wilcox (PharmD ’01) with the oversight of the department.
“I was suddenly overseeing pharmacists who had already made a huge impact both in the hospital and more broadly on the profession, so I had a little bit of imposter syndrome,” Addisu says. “I am forever grateful for Andrew taking a chance on me and mentoring me as it positively impacted my career in a significant way.”
“Through his past service to the PAA Board and his pharmacy leadership with the VA system, [Berook Addisu] has positively impacted our alumni network and patients throughout the country.”
Having made this jump just two years after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, Addisu proved himself to be a rising pharmacy star early in his career, and he did not disappoint. He went on to serve with a variety of groups including the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Patient Care Quality Section Advisory Group, VA Clinical Pharmacy Program Office’s Acute Care Subject Matter Expert Workgroup, UW–Madison School of Pharmacy’s Student Promotion and Academic Review Committee, and on the board of the Pharmacy Alumni Association (PAA) including a year as president.
“Berook Addisu is an exemplary member of the profession,” says Jason Bergsbaken (PharmD ’12), PAA president. “Through his past service to the PAA Board and his pharmacy leadership with the VA system, he has positively impacted our alumni network and patients throughout the country.”
Addisu, now an associate chief of pharmacy at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center, is being honored by the PAA with the 2021 Young Alumnus of the Year award.
“You can’t help but think about the many other deserving alumni out there, so it’s an honor to even be considered for the award,” Addisu says.
History of leadership
Addisu has always had an interest in leadership, even when he was a freshman at UW–Madison. As a pre-pharmacy student, he became an associate academic advisor for the summer SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration) program, representing the School of Pharmacy. Throughout this time, he worked closely with School of Pharmacy student services director Amy Zwaska.
“Every couple of days that summer, hundreds of new undergrads come in for SOAR, so I became responsible for giving a sales pitch to incoming freshmen regarding pharmacy school and the pharmacy profession,” Addisu says. “I had to teach other undergrads to set themselves up for success to get into pharmacy school, and I learned the tips and tricks from Amy.”
All of that legwork paid off, and Addisu applied to the School of Pharmacy and got in. He joined as many student organizations as he could and held multiple leadership positions.
“I wanted to absorb all that the School of Pharmacy offered students,” he says. “I enjoyed learning about the profession and really enjoyed working with students above and below me on different projects and initiatives. Working well together is an art I’m still learning.”
Addisu was the publications chair of Phi Delta Chi, the Student Senate representative for the Wisconsin Society of Pharmacy Students, president of the Christian Pharmacists Fellowship International (CPFI), and he attended several national pharmacy conferences.
“It was expensive but worth it for the learning and networking,” he says.
After losing a pharmacy school classmate, Adam Nickel, in 2008, Addisu also proposed and helped lead an event in his memory, the Remembering Adam Nickel (RAN) Charity Bash.
“We weren’t particularly close, but I knew we should do something to remember him,” says Addisu.
The event, renamed the RAN Ball, continued through 2019, though it is currently paused, due to the pandemic.
Career in the VA
Addisu credits his career in the Veterans Health Administration to his fourth-year Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences.
“That time sticks out to me, specifically my rotation at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center with my preceptor Jennifer Koch, who supported and encouraged me,” he says.
Addisu interviewed exclusively at VAs for PGY-1 residency programs and landed at the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System in Nashville and Murfreesboro, Tenn.
“You can’t help but think about the many other deserving alumni out there, so it’s an honor to even be considered for the award.”
“While I was there, the Madison VA had announced a new PGY-2 residency in health-system pharmacy administration, and Lynnae Mahaney (BS ‘82), who had just finished serving as ASHP president, was the residency program director, so I came back to Madison,” Addisu says.
After that, Addisu became the residency coordinator for the program, responsible for helping the residents who followed him on their management journey and training.
“I’m still in touch with all of them,” he says. “I consider them both colleagues and friends.”
Addisu stayed at the Madison VA until 2019, when he moved to Washington, D.C. and became the associate chief of operations at the VA Medical Center.
“It’s a similar role with slightly different responsibilities,” he says. “Now, I am more comfortable in the role than when I first was an associate chief in Madison.”
The role wasn’t a complete leap into the unknown. Addisu had spent four months at the D.C. VA in 2017, as acting pharmacy director, during a turbulent time for the hospital when they needed outside assistance. When he returned to D.C., he was already familiar with the organization and the city, and he has family in the area.
“People I’d worked with in 2017 had reached out and encouraged me to apply,” Addisu says. “It was an opportunity to see another part of the country and stay within the VA system.”
His new role also exposes him to a different patient population.
“At the D.C. VA, the majority of our patients are African American,” he says. “I enjoy experiencing another way to deliver pharmacy services in an organization with a different patient population. It’s been a rewarding learning experience for me.”
Addisu describes his move from Madison to D.C. as a period of continued growth professionally.
“The staff here have been great. I precepted UW pharmacy students in Madison, and here, I precept Howard University students. I’m learning new ways of delivering care in another health system, with different leaders.”
In the spotlight
Addisu says the proximity of the D.C. VA to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters creates a different dynamic, as well.
“It feels like there’s a brighter spotlight on the facility,” he says. “And that, coupled with COVID transforming pharmacy’s operational priorities, has made this a particularly memorable season.”
VA Secretary Denis McDonough has been to the DC VA a few times and Addisu had an opportunity to share the pharmacy team’s experience with the vaccine. Noteworthy guests from the White House have made their way to the DC VA.
“President Biden came and spent a significant amount of time observing and speaking with one of our pharmacists regarding our COVID vaccine operation in front of the national media,” Addisu said. “We even had a surprise Valentine’s weekend visit from Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband where they brought coffee and cookies to show their support and thanks to DC VA staff.”
Addisu was directly involved in the D.C. VA’s efforts to vaccinate staff and patients, which are ongoing. The VA asked all VA pharmacies to serve a central role within vaccine operations notably to include assigning pharmacy staff the responsibility of drawing up all COVID vaccine doses.
Addisu notes the first day vaccine arrived as the craziest day of his professional career.
“Firstly, unbeknownst to me, our vaccine was incorrectly delivered and signed for by Children’s National Hospital,” recalled Addisu. “I had no idea where it was and frantically ran around the building looking for it while calling FedEx and Pfizer asking where our ‘delivered’ package was. Once finally found and opened, I tried to lift the vaccine to place it in the ultra-cold freezer but the inside vaccine box got stuck. Knowing an opened package can be exposed to room temperature for only five minutes, we went to war with the packaging for a panicked, slow-moving two minutes before finally dislodging the vaccine.”
Addisu had planned on that being the last time vaccine was handled for the day. However, he noted that, like much of life in the pandemic, plans changed.
“That morning I was informed we needed to move up our first vaccination event to that day. Senior leaders from Operation Warp Speed wanted to observe our vaccine operation around noon,” he says. “I urgently took a few pharmacists through our standard operating procedure then wished them well as they drew up our first doses in front of flashing cameras and notable guests.”
“I urgently took a few pharmacists through our standard operating procedure then wished them well as they drew up our first doses in front of flashing cameras and notable guests.”
Not only did the VA pharmacy team vaccinate the VA’s employees and patients, they also have been involved in supporting a variety of other vaccination initiatives from a Gold Star family event, to supporting Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician in vaccinating Capitol Police after the January 6 riot, to vaccinating thousands of Department of Homeland Security employees.
“Scoping out Secret Service facilities for their suitability for a COVID vaccine operation is another of the many unique experiences I have had here,” says Addisu.
Addisu says it was interesting to watch the process of mass vaccinations of people and the nation’s heavy reliance on pharmacists for that effort. His team of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have prepared more than 62,000 shots.
“I know this is something everyone in pharmacy has been experiencing,” he says. “It’s been a career highlight and I’m proud of playing an integral role.”