As the daughter of two nurses, Nia Zalamea’s entire life was centered around medicine. It wasn’t until she joined her parents’ work with Memphis Mission of Mercy, however, that she realized how she could fulfill her own purpose through this calling. As a general surgeon, assistant professor and mission volunteer, Nia brings a global perspective to her hometown and a Memphis heart to her international efforts, which now include the ambitious task of opening a mission hospital in the Philippines. Meet this week’s dedicated FACE of Memphis, Dr. Nia Zalamea-Ducklo!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in the Raleigh/Bartlett area. My parents immigrated in the early ’70s. Growing up, it was a combination of school and church family and then the Filipino community. My parents were very involved. There was lots of hosting and family gatherings at our home. It was very easy, in a way. My brother and I were cared for by lots of different folks when my parents were working.
What was it like being raised in a two-nurse household?
One thing that may feel very normal to me that wouldn’t for other folks is that we would celebrate a lot of birthdays and Christmases and New Year’s Eves at the hospital.
Back when St. Joseph Hospital was open, it was run by Catholic nuns, and you could hear their wooden rosaries when they walked. I remember we would bring Dad the rice cooker and fried chicken for dinner, and we weren’t really supposed to be running around in the middle of the night, so whenever I heard the beads, I would just take off. Of course, they knew, it was impossible to miss us. It was actually really fun. We never got in trouble for it.
How did you get on your own path to medicine?
I had some early, unintentional exposures, just being around my mom and dad’s community, which was really diverse and welcoming. It was really in college that I found myself more engaged with the sciences and with literature. I initially thought that I wanted to be an English professor, but in terms of practicality, I realized that literature and reading and writing were more of a hobby for me, and I had this fear that if I turned it into something that was a job then it would no longer be a joy. Biology was stronger for me, so I took the stuff I would need for pre-med, just in case that was exactly what I wanted to do.
Around that same time, Dad went on his first mission trip to Guyana. I went on the second one that he organized. I was 19 or 20 at the time. It was the moment. That’s when I thought, maybe this is a way for me to use my love of and comfort with biology and thinking about how I might be able to find some purpose in life. That’s when I decided I wanted to go to medical school.
What is it like to share this calling with your family?
In between the work times when we’re in the operating room together, we huddle a lot, my mom and dad and I. We talk about what we might do differently the next year, what are some of the challenges. It’s been a joy. It’s been really cool to think about and experience them on such different levels. I’m still learning about my parents as we do the work.
What is your role with the Global Surgery Initiative?
The Global Surgery Initiative is essentially a collaborative of surgeons and residents and students who either all have an interest or a practice in international surgery. In 2016, I met with Dr. Shibata, the UT department chair in surgery, and he said, “You can be a general surgeon with our group and do that traditional role, but we also want your mission work.” I knew that early exposure during training and my younger years was really instrumental in helping me shape my “why,” as to why I went into general surgery. I wanted to share that, so this was a real first.
Is there a mission experience that comes to mind as representative of what the group has been able to accomplish?
It’s almost the most common or mundane that’s the most powerful to me. There was one kiddo — not a kid, really, he was 21 — he was a keyboard player for his church, and he wanted to launch his own music career. This was not typical for our mission trip. You know, it was always farmers and laborers, people who work in the fields. He was living in a very rural town, but he was trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard artist. He had an electric keyboard, and it was the cheapest thing he could afford, but it was also very light, because he’d had a hernia since he was a kid that never got fixed. It was modern-day mission work. This is not the story that you’re going to see in the newspaper or some blog post, but for me, it was a moment where I thought, this is going to affect this guy for the rest of his life.
How does the Memphis community shape your perspective on medicine?
Being home and being able to do what I do here helps me when I go overseas in ways that I didn’t predict. When I talk with my students, the way that we think about it is there are different ways we can pick up on clues that someone might be going through something challenging. What’s being honed is your ability to listen — and listen in different ways — to what’s going on around you. Not to try to predict or assume, but slow down and consider. You can’t judge. We somehow have an easier time not judging people when we’re on missions than when we’re back home. You realize it helps us see our community and our neighbors a little bit differently.
Where are your favorite places to spend time in Memphis?
I’ve always loved the river. I used to live around the corner, and it was always a place for me to meditate, write or read books. My husband’s gallery, TOPS Gallery, is down here, and we spend a lot of time in the South Main area. We’ll go to Overton Park and walk around there — that’s actually where he proposed to me. Our favorite restaurants are Pete & Sam’s and Little Italy.
What is your best advice?
One of the things my mentors talked to me about when I was a student was to find my “why,” in everything — the why that informs your life — and keep that center. My why has certainly changed over the years, but it provides a lot of clarity and peace. It helped me with every transition that I’ve made and how I look at my career in the context of family.
Other than family, friends and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
Quiet time for reading or writing, some sort of physical activity to help me rest mentally and emotionally, and a sense of purpose.
Thank you so much Dr. Nia for your dedication to our city and for serving Memphis – and beyond – so well.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele of Mary Kate Steele Photography for these beautiful photos.
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