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VOL. 133 | NO. 23 | Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Permanent Presence

Local nonprofit planning mission hospital in the Philippines

By Andy Meek

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Nia Zalamea was supposed to be an English professor until realizing that the English major at the University of Virginia involved more work than she wanted or would be able to handle.

Her calling, instead, turned out to be in the field of applied sciences. In subjects like biology and biochemistry. Couple that with her family’s long-running mission efforts and an interest in bringing health care to the underserved, and the result is – well, the thing on which Zalamea, who today is a general surgeon in Memphis with UT Methodist Physicians, spends most of her time outside of the 9-to-5.

Zalamea, who left Church Health a little less than two years ago to join UTMP, is also helping lead the nonprofit called Memphis Mission of Mercy that her mother and father launched in 2000. Through it, the family has been involved in medical and surgical mission work around the world and has conducted short-term missions in 27 different communities in the Philippines.

Jasmine Dorsey, a nurse anesthetist from Methodist, checks on a child in need of an operation in the Philippines during a recent short-term trip a team from Memphis Mission of Mercy made to the area. The group is now planning to build a permanent facility in the country. (Photo courtesy of Memphis Mission of Mercy)

Now, after nearly a year of consideration, she and the family have settled on a project through which they want the nonprofit to have more of a long-term impact. They’ve decided to build a mission hospital in the sugar-cane farming community of Victorias City, in the Philippines.

It’s rare to catch Zalamea these days during a free moment when she’s not teaching – she’s also a University of Tennessee assistant professor – or working as a surgeon or on planes, traveling as part of her international work.

Her family’s nonprofit is in the design phase of the facility it’s planning.

“Our annual budget is about $14,000 a year … depending on whether we’re doing surgery or surgery-plus-clinic, the cost per patient is either $7 per patient or $1.70 per patient,” Zalamea says. “At least, usually, 100 surgical patients a year and then around 2,000 to 3,000 clinical patients. What we envision is a long-term mission hospital, which is in the form of primarily a surgery center with in-patient stay. It’s a 40-bed in-patient hospital with six operating rooms, a clinic with six rooms and then a small administrative area, plus a dorm for volunteers.”

The mission work leading up to being able to provide a long-term facility is the product of two decades fueled in part by volunteers and the generosity of the medical community in Memphis. Hundreds of volunteers have contributed, either behind the scenes or actually traveling with the nonprofit. Equipment the group uses for its care has come from institutions like Regional One Health and Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp.

The nonprofit thought for a time about changing its name, about taking Memphis out of it, as work on the mission hospital progresses. But the city is actually intrinsic to the mission, and not just because volunteers come from here.

Nia Zalamea

Whenever a group lands in the Philippines on a new mission, they’re known in short as “Memphis.” In other words, they’ll be referred to as “Memphis” when coming back in a few months. Or, this patient was cared for by “Memphis.”

Zalamea said the nonprofit considered a few different towns in the Philippines where it could build the new facility. They eventually settled on what looked like a sweet spot right in the middle of the country – a heavily agricultural area, west of so-called Typhoon Alley.

Much remains to be done to make the facility a reality, from planning to fundraising and more. And the effort’s short-term trips still continue. Those trips last around 10 days, and have been conducting annually and sometimes biannually.

For those, the teams go into a town, engages with the local health system and doctors, and performs operations. In October, the effort landed in the town of Carmona in the Philippines, where the team performed 85 surgeries in one week.

The nonprofit heads back to the country in October as work on the build and design phase of the hospital is continuing.

“As physicians, we can sometimes become really jaded and think that my job is the two hours of this operation I do in the operating room, when I enter and close that door,” Zalamea says. “I used to think kind of negative thoughts about our hometown when I was a teenager. But I’ve grown to be really proud of it. The people helping us do this work are not doing it for any fame or some sort of grandeur or award. They’re doing it just because it’s part of who they are.

“We need a lot of prayers, a lot of help, but we’re moving forward. We have a tremendous amount of humility about it all.”

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