Nia Zalamea is a board-certified general surgeon. After five years in a traditional medical practice in rural Virginia, she joined the Church Health Center, an organization in Memphis, Tenn., that seeks to reclaim the biblical commitment to care for our bodies, minds, and spirit. She is one of two general surgeons in the U.S. who does full-time charitable work.
1. Why did you leave traditional medical practice? I went into medicine to serve; it was the one craft and skillset I could offer to an individual in front of me. But after five years, I found out that I wasn’t actually living my mission; I had put five people into bankruptcy. What I saw in rural America was that even one operation could completely derail not just one generation but multiple generations. Not just in terms of economics, but in terms of social capital, education, and everything we know that affects health and medical care.
2. What exactly does the Church Health Center do? The Church Health Center is a medical wellness home for the underserved, the uninsured, and the underinsured of Memphis. We provide surgery on a sliding scale; if someone can’t afford the surgery, it gets written off. The hospital supports the surgery in not charging the hospital fee, which is a huge chunk of the cost. So it’s not free, but the out-of-pocket cost for the patient is extremely low. We just make it affordable.
3. What are some of the barriers that prevent your patients from having access to health care? We have ongoing workshops during open enrollment to get people on to Affordable Care Act plans, but what is deemed “affordable” is not always affordable; the majority of my patients are 150 to 200 percent below the poverty line. Another barrier is access: Just because you have an insurance card doesn’t mean the doctor will see you. And this is where a lot of the injustice lies; many doctors’ offices and businesses have closed their doors to new Medicaid patients. Finally, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t cover everyone; my patients include undocumented immigrants, refugees, and patients from other countries whose children are being treated nearby at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.