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Department of Surgery’s Zalamea Honored for Leadership as Educator, Global Health Care Provider

Dr. Nia Zalamea, right, is the recipient of a 2022 Spark Award for her work locally as a surgeon and educator, and globally to improve health care overseas.

Nia Zalamea, MD, FACS, assistant professor of general surgery, director of the UTHSC Global Surgery Institute, and associate director of the UTHSC Center for Multicultural and Global Health, has done medical mission work in the Philippines for more than 20 years with her family foundation, the Memphis Mission of Mercy. The nonprofit provides health care in her parents’ home country of the Philippines.

When Dr. Zalamea and that organization saw a need across the globe earlier this year, they stepped up. During the summer, the Memphis Mission of Mercy sent 18 tons of hospital supplies, surgical instruments, blankets, stretchers, and other equipment collected for a hospital they hope to build in the Philippines to surgeon partners in Ukraine instead.

For her two decades of service with the Memphis Mission of Mercy; her efforts as a surgeon, an educator and a mentor of future physicians; and her dedication to health and health care locally and around the globe, Dr. Zalamea is being honored with a 2022 SPARK Award.

The SPARK Awards are an extension of the WKNO-TV series, “The SPARK,” a show about local leaders who are giving back and improving the Mid-South community. The SPARK Awards will be broadcast today from 8 to 9 p.m., on WKNO/Channel 10, with repeat broadcasts throughout the month. The ninth edition of the annual awards, which are produced by WKNO-TV and cityCURRENT, honors individuals and organizations in 13 categories. Dr. Zalamea is an honoree in the educator category.

Dr. Zalamea is shown in a family photo with husband, Matt Ducklo, and daughter, 18-month-old Noli. The awards show will air tonight and be rebroadcast several times this month on WKNO.

For years, Dr. Zalamea and the Memphis Mission of Mercy have been collecting medical supplies and equipment for a hospital the organization hopes to build in the Philippines. The supplies have been stored in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in South Memphis.

“We had a meeting, and we decided we have to give everything, including operating tables, because they don’t have anything,” Dr. Zalamea said earlier this year. The shipment would include 100-plus pallets or 18 tons of supplies.

Dr. Zalamea recounted the meeting during which the altruistic decision was made. “One of our board members reflected, ‘it’s funny, we have been spending the last 10 years preparing for a particular moment in time when we might be able to fill a mission hospital (in the Philippines) with all of these supplies, and that day perhaps is to come. But perhaps the Lord has actually been preparing for this moment instead, with this need before us, and we happen to have an answer to that need.’ ”

Memphis Mission of Mercy worked with Nova Ukraine to ship the equipment that carried more than $100,000 in shipping costs. The logistics took months to iron out. The group had already sent supplies, including an anesthesia machine, to Ukraine in Spring 2022. 

This time, the supplies and equipment, supplemented by supplies from the UTHSC Department of Surgery, were packed into containers in late June and left Memphis on the Fourth of July. They finally arrived in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, on September 2 and the equipment and supplies were quickly distributed by trucks to hospitals and frontline workers.

Memphis Mission of Mercy has not given up its intention for a hospital in the Philippines. However, a second shipment of supplies is being sent from the Memphis Mission of Mercy and the Department of Surgery, including additional surgical supplies, airway supplies and disposables, as well as operating room (OR) sinks, OR booms, OR lights and microscopes. UTHSC’s hospital partner Regional One Health donated a Dermatome for the shipment as well. The contents of the second shipment are being crated this week to go out.

Recently, Dr. Zalamea traveled to Pagamutang Bayan Ng Hospital Carmona and Ospital Ng Maynila Medical Center in Manila in preparation for upcoming work there in February and October of 2023.

“It is an honor and a privilege to bring together my passion (to serve those in need) with my purpose (to alleviate suffering through surgery) and my profession (educator and clinician),” Dr. Zalamea said. “This is a lifelong pursuit, and I am honored to continue to live this life of service that my parents instilled in me when I was a teenager. I am privileged to have completed training in a field I hold dear and to have a practice in which I find fulfillment. I am overjoyed at finding a professional and educational environment in which our leadership understands the delicate balance between the needs of our learners, the treatment of our patients, and the challenges of the ever-changing health care environment.”

Scott Strome, MD, executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, said Dr. Zalamea is the true definition of a hero.  “She is not only an incredible physician and educator, but also manages to find time to better the quality of life for people in need around the world,” he said. “She is truly an inspirational leader, and we are so fortunate to have her on our team at the UTHSC College of Medicine.”

Honorees in 13 categories received Spark Awards during a taping of an awards show that will air tonight on WKNO/Channel 10, from 8-9 p.m. UTHSC’s Dr. Nia Zalamea, second row, second from left, is among the winners.

Jeremy C. Park, CEO of cityCURRENT, host of “The Spark” and producer of the awards, said the dedication and leadership of each of the honorees is appreciated. “It’s inspiring to see students leading the way to help local nonprofits, people helping families in need and children fighting illnesses and diseases, business executives and owners using their resources as community catalysts, educators going the extra mile to train the next generation of doctors while expanding access to medical care locally and globally, and nonprofits creating strong support networks for our city and citizens who need our help. Watching and learning their stories helps us see the good taking place not only in the Mid-South, but in our nation and word, as well.”