Medical Mission Work a Family Calling for UTHSC Surgeon

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Dr. Nia Zalamea has been tapped to direct the new Global Surgery Institute for the Department of Surgery at UTHSC. (Photo by Thurman Hobson/UTHSC)

For surgeon Nia Zalamea, medical mission work is a family affair.

An assistant professor of surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, she has done medical mission work annually in the Philippines since 1999 with her father, a nurse anesthetist, and mother, a nurse, both of whom were born in that country and came to Memphis in the 1970s.

Dr. Zalamea knows how much medical mission work has given her. “I think this work changes you personally and professionally,” she said.

Beyond that, she knows it is vital in improving world health.

Dr. Zalamea has been tapped to head a new Global Surgery Institute for the Department of Surgery at UTHSC. She will work with Martin Fleming, MD, chief of surgical oncology and associate professor of surgery, to establish the institute, which will support and coordinate surgical mission work across the department, assist residents and students interested in mission work, and apply lessons learned to local delivery of clinical care.

Medical mission work is not new for the Department of Surgery.

A survey done while setting up the institute showed that approximately 20 faculty members were providing 58 weeks of mission work each year around the globe on their own time. “That’s breathtaking,” Dr. Zalamea said. The surgeons, most of whom, like Dr. Zalamea, are affiliated with Methodist Le Bonheur Health Care, donate their surgical skills to help people in China, Vietnam, Honduras, Nicaragua, India, and the Philippines, among many destinations.

“We realized there’s all this going on, and there’s nothing in the center to provide communication and support of the work that’s actually being done,” she said. The institute and its board will provide that central anchor for the surgery work being done around the globe. “It is not any sort of governing body to tell people where to go or what to do, but it’s more of a supportive administrative division within the Department of Surgery.”

In the last few years, access to quality surgical care has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a key to improving global health.

“Global surgery has suddenly been thrust into the limelight,” she said. “Surgery mission work and global surgery is not just about providing surgeons for people who don’t have surgeons. It’s about providing the quality and level of care we are blessed to have in the United States.”

And while the focus of work is outward, the benefits are felt inward. Global mission work is informing the way surgical care is delivered at home. It can teach surgeons how to conserve costs, eliminate unnecessary procedures, and better listen to patients in considering their economic, social, and logistic needs when determining care.

“There are things we can learn from the process,” she said. “We can say, ‘OK, this is what we do overseas. Let’s see how that would work here.’ ”

In Memphis, for example, with its considerable health challenges and poor outcomes in everything from breast cancer to infant mortality, principles gleaned from mission work can benefit care.

“A lot of folks have said, ‘Nia, why would you have to go to the Philippines? Why don’t you just do it here,’ ” she said. “Well, I’m trying, but I think there’s something that we learn and that we come back with when we do mission work overseas. We realize that quality of care doesn’t end at our border, and similarly, quality of care doesn’t stay within the insurance realm, it must necessarily extend out into our care for the uninsured, the homeless.”

Dr. Zalamea, left, and her father, Renato Zalamea, a nurse anesthetist, work together during a mission trip in Haiti. (Photo courtesy Dr. Nia Zalamea)

Born and raised in Memphis, Dr. Zalamea graduated from the University of Virginia in 1998, and spent the next two years working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Church Health Center. During that time, her father, Renato Zalamea, a nurse anesthetist, went on his first mission trip to Guyana to teach regional anesthesia. The next year, he organized a medical mission to the Philippines, and the family went with him. The Memphis Mission of Mercy, a 501 C3 non-profit, was born, and has been working annually in the Philippines since.

Dr. Zalamea received her medical degree from James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, and did her residency at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California. She practiced in Abingdon, Virginia, then came to Memphis in 2013 to join the Church Health Center. She later transitioned her practice to Methodist, and joined UTHSC last August.

“For me, having dad and mom in this gave me the confidence to say, ‘I can do this.’ If I didn’t have that, I don’t know how I would begin,” she said. That’s why one of the key missions of the institute will be to give medical students and residents the financial and logistical help they need to participate in surgical missions wherever they choose to go.

In January, Memphis Mission of Mercy was designated as an official partner of the American College of Surgeons Operation Giving Back. “This official partnership affirms the work of Memphis Mission of Mercy, and allows the leadership and membership of the American College of Surgeons to participate and contribute to the work of the mission,” Dr. Zalamea said. “This allows for us to continually share, develop and report on overseas work via the American College of Surgeons, and opens up the opportunity to coordinate and collaborate with the American College and other organizations partnered with Operation Giving Back.”

Dr. Zalamea will be heading back to the Philippines in October with the family mission, along with several physicians affiliated with UTHSC and Methodist. The Zalameas hope, with the support of UTHSC and Methodist, to one day turn their mission work into a hospital there. In fact, they have just chosen a site for their long-term work in the Philippines. It is in the City of Victorias, a sugar cane farming community. But the focus is not confined to that country.

“What I am really passionate about is the distribution of quality of care and outcomes for people who live in the Philippines, people who live in South Memphis, people who live in Frayser, people who live in Midtown,” she said. “We all deserve that opportunity