MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A young surgeon went to see Gary Shorb when he served as CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.
“She came in with the intended purpose of trying to understand how health systems work, how hospitals work, how the financials work, and how we balance the mission of the organization with the need to make payroll, buy equipment, build buildings, make a margin. When she left, I said there is one really smart physician with a lot of heart and she is going to make a difference in anything she does,” Shorb said of his visitor, Dr. Nia Zalamea-Ducklo.
The inquisitive young general surgeon with the big heart worked for the Church Health at that time.
Zalamea-Ducklo had reason to ask all those questions of Shorb--one of the Mid-South’s most respected healthcare leaders. The dynamo surgeon is now a driving force behind a mission hospital that is being planned and has a desire to help serve the poor on a global scale.
“This is the most logical way and effective way to live my faith,” Zalamea-Ducklo told a crowd of more than 250 at the Memphis Mission of Mercy’s first fundraising gala at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn.
A fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Zalamea-Ducklo came by her desire to help heal the poor from her family’s sterling example of servant leadership.
Her father, Renato Zalamea, CRNA, is a nurse anesthetist, and her mother, Norma Zalamea, is a registered nnurse. Both her parents emigrated from the Philippines separately in the 1970s and found their way to Memphis but didn’t know each other until they met at an Al Green concert downtown. The couple married, started a family and decided to raise their children in Memphis.
Zalamea-Ducklo’s father first went on a medical mission with Health Volunteers Overseas where he taught anesthesia on a 1998 trip to Guyana.
That experience led to his founding of Memphis Mission of Mercy--an organization that has focused on serving the poor in the Zalamea family’s homeland.
“Over the past nearly two decades, our mission family has worked to supply over $17.7 million worth of free medical and surgical care in the Philippines,” Zalamea-Ducklo told her gala audience of more than 250.
The Memphis Mission of Mercy has made 22 trips to the Philippines since 1999, recruiting a small army of mostly Memphis based doctors, nurses and support staff who’ve treated thousands of people.
Zalamea-Ducklo explained the mission’s patients delay needed surgery due to little or no financial resources or limited travel options.
“There’s a 54-year-old gentleman who has to delay his hernia operation for 35 years for fear of losing his job on the plantation,” Zalamea-Ducklo explained to her gala audience as she listed other cases the Memphis mission has served. “A teenager who’s lived a lifetime of ridicule, years of scorn, years of side-eye glances due to his clef lip and palate."
The surgeon told of a mother of four who was unable to sleep at night due to a condition that prevented her from lying flat. Memphis Mission of Mercy was able to perform surgery that resolved these cases and many others in operating conditions far from ideal.
“We may have a chicken farm right outside the window,” Zalamea-Ducklo described the hardly state of the art scenarios where doctors find themselves in impoverished Filipino communities. “Sometimes we have air conditioning, plus or minus; we may have occasional mosquitoes in the room."
Despite these challenges, Zalamea-Ducklo said that the surgical outcomes after 19 years of mission trips to the Philippines equal or surpass those done in American hospitals.
After studying the data, the surgeon offered an explanation of the special blessing medical missionaries create.
“The value offered to the families that we care for is delivered with much joy and much love. This level of attention and intention is the primary factor that I have identified that gives us a surgical advantage in the quality of our outcomes when working overseas,” the doctor said.
After 19 years of crisscrossing the Philippines to serve the less fortunate, Memphis Mission of Mercy now has dreams of building a $5 million hospital in the city of Victorias in the province of Negros Occidental, Philippines.
“We aim to serve those 83,000 (residents of the city of Victorias) and the 2.5 million people living on the surrounding islands of Negros Occidental,” Zalamea-Ducklo revealed to her gala audience.
“My great-great grandfather arrived on the islands of Negros Occidental,” said Carlos Arnaiz, the architect Memphis Mission of Mercy hired to design its hospital.
The architect explained to the gala audience that he could trace his family’s Filipino origins to the region where the new hospital will rise.
The New York based architect, principal at CAZA Architecture, shared artist renderings of the forty-bed hospital featuring six operating rooms.
“It was very important to the doctors and nurses to design a hospital that was welcoming, to produce a hospital that embraced the public, created a sense you were included and it wasn’t intimidating space,” Arnaiz said.
To that end, the hospital features a large community space, a library, a small restaurant and a chapel.
“Our architects educated themselves on healthcare in the Philippines. It’s a place that delivers healthcare and inspires people to dream,” the architect said.
The hospital features volunteer dormitories for thirty, three gardens and even a studio for a resident artist.
“Dr. Nia had the idea they’d be sponsoring artist residencies so that artists could come and live in the hospital for a certain amount of time, make work, be part of the story and experience healing and then that work could also be put on display,” Arnaiz said.
Land for the hospital was donated by the city of Victorias, a landscape the architect called a tropical paradise.
“The landscape and the architecture are really working together,” Arnaiz said.
Shorb, the keynote speaker at the MMM Gala, called the hospital project a courageous act.
“Any organization that’s dedicated to the poor, that’s dedicated to people who have nowhere else to turn except to a hospital like this, an area with extreme poverty, is an organization I can get behind,” Shorb said.
Zalamea-Ducklo’s passion for serving the poor apparently has become contagious at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
“The UT Department of Surgery came forward with a desire to launch a Global Surgery Institute specifically to bring UT faculty and residents to be able to have professional and personal development through these service missions, not just to the Philippines but to the world,” Zalamea-Ducklo told the gala audience and noted partnerships are now in formation with other academic institutions in the U.S. and the Philippines.
In making her appeal to the gala crowd, Zalamea-Ducklo reflected on her faith.
“I am a believer and I know this: Christ commands that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Love itself is action and our neighbor is everyone. In doing much with little in our surgical work, I’ve come to understand the Lord always does provide what we need,” the physician said. “We need your help so we can continue what Mom and Dad started years ago. We invite you to join us and we warmly welcome you to the Memphis Mission of Mercy family."