New UTHSC Global Surgery Institute Mobilizes to Help Around the World

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Dr. Nia Zalamea, center, is a founder of the UTHSC Global Surgery Institute, organized in the Department of Surgery to encourage, coordinate, and support medical mission work around the world. She is shown here on a medical mission in the Philippines. (Photo by Matt Ducklo/Memphis Mission of Mercy)

First-year medical student Janyn Quiz, 24, grew up in the Philippines and moved to the United States two years ago with her family. She is among a group of students and faculty at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center working to promote surgical mission work around the world through a newly formed UTHSC Global Surgery Institute (GSI) in the College of Medicine’s Department of Surgery.

“I’m really grateful for my country, and I want to give back to them as much as I can,” Quiz said.

The Global Surgery Institute will anchor surgical mission work across the department, assist surgical residents and students interested in mission work, and apply lessons learned around the globe to local delivery of clinical care.

Nia Zalamea, MD, an assistant professor of surgery, and Martin Fleming, MD, chief of surgical oncology and associate professor of surgery, are the organizers of the GSI. “It ties all of our separate projects into one home base,” Dr. Zalamea said.

Dr. Martin Fleming, also a founder of the GSI, has found that medical mission work benefits both patients and health care providers. “It resets everything,” GSI’s Dr. Zalamea said.

Dr. Zalamea 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. The family founded the Memphis Mission of Mercy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and has made yearly medical missions to the Philippines since. Dr. Fleming has participated in missions to the Philippines with Dr. Zalamea’s organization and to Tanzania to teach and perform clinical work.

“She’s the driving force to all of this,” Dr. Fleming said, of Dr. Zalamea. “It was just a gift to me when she joined our department that we could really start to put something together that made sense.”

A survey done during the organizational phase showed approximately 20 surgical faculty members at UTHSC were providing 58 weeks of mission work each year around the globe on their own time. “That’s breathtaking,” Dr. Zalamea said. “Within the Department of Surgery, we’ve organized ourselves because there are all of these projects happening all over the world.”

The physicians most of whom, like Dr. Zalamea, are affiliated with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, donate their surgical skills to help people in China, Vietnam, Honduras, Nicaragua, India, and the Philippines, among many destinations. They include ophthalmologists, plastic surgeons, pediatric surgeons, pediatric cardiac surgeons, general surgeons, surgical oncologists, and more.

Department of Surgery members volunteer on missions in many countries. Pictured in the Philippines are: from left, Dr. Jeremiah Deneve; Dr. Jennifer Gordon, chief resident;  and Dr. Fleming.

The survey also showed 60 percent of incoming residents were interested in doing international work as part of their training, and 65 to 70 percent of medical students had already been involved in international work prior to residency. “That’s a pretty moving statistic,” she said. “Not only do they want it, but they’ve already engaged in it.”

Andrew Fleming, 25, a third-year medical student from Memphis aiming for a surgery residency, joined the GSI student group to help those in need. “I think when you travel and you’re able to see huge health care discrepancies, huge economic discrepancies, and you realize you have either opportunities or ability or income that affords you the ability to treat diseases that in America we might take for granted as simple or non-debilitating and in other parts of the world can be incredibly debilitating, I think we have his kind of existential need to help those who are unable to help themselves.”

Beyond offering millions of dollars of surgery for free to the underserved around the globe, Dr. Zalamea said medical mission work offers immeasurable benefits that can inform care at home.

“We have a lot more to learn when it comes to cultural humility and context and understanding the people we operate on and work with clinically,” she said. “So when we go overseas, it can help us understand some of the whys here back home, but also develop empathies, and learn not to judge. It resets everything. It helps us be better physicians, but also just people in general.”

Both physicians said medial mission work may also teach lessons in value-based medicine. “Our outcomes are incredibly good overseas at very low cost,” Dr. Zalamea said.

“That speaks to frugality and common sense,” Dr. Fleming added.

As the GSI expands, it will continue to support the work to the Philippines, where Dr. Zalamea’s family organization plans to build a hospital in the sugar-cane farming community of Victorias City.

As a partner of the American College of Surgeons, the GSI is linked with similar organizations nationally and globally, expanding overseas opportunities and support.

A student interest group is supporting the GSI. Front row: Matthew Thomas, Janyn Quiz, Melissa Justo, Ladd Caballero
Back row: Dr. Martin Fleming, Julia Freitas, Andrew Fleming

Melissa Justo, 26, a first-year medical student from Chattanooga, joined the GSI student interest group because her parents came to the United States from the Philippines and she still has many family members there. “In my dad’s family, they live in a province where the roads are still unpaved and I know they have to walk everywhere, and it’s interesting to see what the standards are for health care in the states compared to the Philippines,” she said. “I would like to be able to help out in some way.”

Raising funds

A Global Surgery Support Fund has been established through the UT Foundation to offer scholarships for travel expenses to medical students, surgery residents, and surgery fellows interested in doing mission work through the UTHSC Global Surgery Institute.

To help fund the scholarships, the Global Surgery Institute will hold its first fund-raiser May 11 from 6-10 p.m. at The Brass Door, 152 Madison Avenue, and the Madison Avenue Park across the street.

Admission is $10, or $5 with a student ID, and includes refreshments and entertainment. Ethicon Endosurgery, a manufacturer of surgical devices, is helping sponsor the event.