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A Black Man in a White Coat: The Story of Dr. Nche Zama

Marlene J. Wust-Smith, MD shares the inspiring story of a young black boy raised in poverty who went from being homeless to becoming a world-renowned cardio-thoracic surgeon.

A TALE OF TWO HEART SURGEONS

 

You would have to be hiding under a rock to NOT have heard that Dr. Mehmet Oz, (the famous, sometimes controversial, Muslim Turkish-American celebrity heart surgeon) is running for office as a U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania. Dr. Oz received his undergraduate degree from Harvard, his Medical Doctorate and Masters in Business Administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and trained as a general and cardiothoracic surgeon at Columbia-Presbyterian, where he remained on staff until 2022.   The son of a physician (his father Mustafa was also a CT surgeon), Oz grew up in a wealthy and privileged household and continues to have a high net worth, some of which he is using to finance his campaign for Senate.

 

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Dr. Oz literally became a household name in the United States and around the world with his own weekly TV show that ran for 13 seasons.  He was catapulted to fame by Oprah Winfrey, who had him on as a frequent medical correspondent guest on her popular daytime talk show for five years before granting him his own syndicated show.

Dr. Oz is one of SEVEN candidates vying for the U.S. Senate seat, and polls have him neck and neck with his competition.

AM I SEEING DOUBLE?

But did you know that there is a SECOND cardio-thoracic surgeon on the Pennsylvania ballot?

 

 

Physicians becoming involved in politics is nothing new, and in a sense, not surprising. Doctors and aspiring politicians have many shared characteristics: they must be able to perform well under pressure, and be critical thinkers who are able to lead hand-picked teams.  They must be willing to sacrifice, putting the needs of others before self, interested in optimal individual outcomes, but also invested in the big picture or the “greater good.” Both the successful physician and politician must be able to delegate responsibilities to trusted personnel, but have to be willing and able to accept ALL of the responsibility—good and bad—for any and all outcomes under their leadership.

 

Doctors and aspiring politicians have many shared characteristics: they must be able to perform well under pressure, and be critical thinkers who are able to lead hand-picked teams. Click To Tweet

 

What I find surprising is that on May 17th the ballot will have two very specific relatively RARE kinds of doctors for Pennsylvanians to choose from. It takes more than eleven years after graduating from college to become a cardio-thoracic surgeon. Four years of medical school. Five years of a general surgery residency.  At least two (usually more) years of specialized cardio-thoracic training.  With fewer than 4000 heart surgeons in the U.S., what are the chances that there would be two retired heart surgeons for voters to choose from? As likely as Rich Strike winning the Kentucky Derby!

 

 

And these two candidates couldn’t be more different. The “other” heart surgeon also boasts a “Z” in his name, and has as impressive an educational resume as Dr. Oz (in addition to having an MD, he has a PhD in Chemistry and completed his surgical training at The Cleveland Clinic, a cardio-thoracic fellowship at Brigham and Women’s and management training at Harvard), but that is where most of the similarities end. He is NOT a household name (yet).

 

The “other” heart surgeon on the ballot is Dr. Nche Zama, and he plans on becoming the next Governor of Pennsylvania.

 

 

Unlike Dr. Oz, Dr. Zama did not grow up in the lap of luxury. In fact, his parents were very poor, strict, illiterate Christian subsistence farmers from a small village in the Republic of Cameroon in West Africa.

Dr. Zama made a good living prior to retiring as a cardiac surgeon, but has generously given away more than he has kept, financing the education of many of his nieces and nephews, and using his earnings to start schools back home, as well as funding other charities.  Dr. Oz is worth millions. Dr. Zama had to mortgage his house to finance his campaign.

 

With fewer than 4000 heart surgeons in the U.S., what are the chances that there would be two retired heart surgeons for voters to choose from? As likely as Rich Strike winning the Kentucky Derby! Click To Tweet

 

Dr. Zama is a bright light not often encountered in the world of politics.  He is entering the political arena because he feels divinely called to, not because of ego or wanting the spotlight on himself.  Many politicians have earned the unfortunate reputation of being “bottom feeders” who become mired in dirty back-room, grease-palming deals with special interest groups.

Not so with Dr. Zama.

He is truly different and he unashamedly states that he is running for Governor because he has been “called” to do so.

 

“We’ve all had that moment when God speaks to us. God spoke to me.”

A deeply religious man, but not one who shuns or discriminates against those who think or see the world differently than he does, he is a virtual unknown with a self-funded campaign who made the bold decision to run for Governor, because he says, “Pennsylvania is dying, and it needs a doctor to fix it.”

Zama does not read from scripts or memorize speeches prepared by his campaign manager or a professional writer.  He is likely one of the most intelligent and well-spoken individuals to run for ANY office. On the campaign trail, he is often told “You are too smart to be our state’s Governor.”

Hearing Dr. Nche Zama’s life story on Dr. Cook’s podcast episode will truly move you, regardless of your political persuasion or party affiliation. He embodies the American Dream, and has a vision to govern that is unlike that of any other candidate. Virtually everyone who meets Dr. Zama in person becomes an avid supporter.

Zama started his formal education at the age of 3 (initially turned away from several of Cameroon’s missionary schools because of his young age) and came to the United States to start college in Baltimore Maryland, at one of the nation’s oldest historically black universities. He was only 14 when he enrolled at Coppin College on a student visa.

 

 

He decided he wanted to become a doctor at the age of 10 after tragically witnessing his mother’s death from a post-partum hemorrhage in a thatched-roof village hospital in Cameroon where her nurse wailed over and over “She needs a doctor to save her.” At that time, Nche had no idea what a doctor was or did, but in that moment he decided he would someday become a physician, so that no other child would have to endure such a tragic loss.

 

 

Within a few years of his mother’s death his father, villagers and Zama’s school pooled together enough funds to purchase young Nche a one-way plane ticket to the United States.  He arrived at Kennedy Airport with only $20 in his pocket (which he was quickly scammed out of by a panhandler). He made his way to Baltimore Maryland where he lived at a YMCA facility (in a room normally reserved for the homeless), sustaining himself on water from the faucet and peanut butter sandwiches provided to him by a kind stranger. He credits a series of kind strangers—who he calls ‘angels’—with helping him along the way his entire life.

After attending Coppin College in Maryland for a year,  Zama moved to Boston and obtained a bachelors degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  He then went on to earn a PhD in chemistry. Subsequently he completed medical school at the University of Cincinnati, a surgical residency at the Cleveland Clinic, and ultimately graduated from a Cardiothoracic fellowship at Harvard where he also received specialized education and training in Pediatric Cardiac Surgery. He holds a Master of Science degree in Management from Harvard University.

 

                                                                           

 

The inspiration to run for public office realized itself during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Dr. Zama  realized just how unprepared politicians are to govern during a public health crisis. Like Dr. Oz, Dr. Zama is a strong supporter of vaccines—but ONLY for those who are at high risk from complications of disease. He loathes draconian mandates and unscientifically-based shut-downs, citing the harm to the mental health and education of our nation’s youth and the destruction of small businesses, which are the backbone of the state’s economy.  He is quite vocal about the atrocities and unintended consequences of school closures that disproportionately affected those prone to “zip code disease,” people who live in our inner cities and who are adversely affected by a cycle of abject poverty, poor nutrition, drug abuse, and social policies that reward single motherhood and detract from the traditional two-parent family unit.

A true humanitarian, Zama is fueled by a passion for the pursuit of excellence, regardless of one’s skin color.  He does not believe in playing the “race” card, but instead believes in the power of hard work, and supporting policies that help ALL individuals and families—especially those with children—find their passion and pursue their dreams.  He is a strong proponent of school choice and early vocational training opportunities—he believes that not everyone needs nor wants to go to college, and that his state needs to create opportunities for children to embrace mastery of skills that will sustain their own economy and that of their communities at large.

Zama is very pragmatic about issues that are normally very politically divisive. He refreshingly speaks his mind and stays true to his own value system, understanding that not everyone will agree with him. Take gun control, for instance. He is the ONLY one of the candidates running for Governor who has literally removed bullets from the body cavities of youths who are victims and propagators of gun violence. The solution, he believes, is NOT to pass legislation that sweepingly restricts access to guns or bullets.  That does nothing. Guns, drugs, poverty and homelessness will continue to exist, and legislation will serve no purpose other than to take away the rights of those who use guns for hunting, generational bonding and for personal protection. As Governor, he plans to empower the very stakeholders within communities at risk to address the core issues that attract children, teens and young adults to join misuse guns and join gangs in the first place.

With regards to abortion, he states that as a Christian he is pro-life, and that he values the life of ALL human beings. He holds no animosity toward a woman who chooses to have an abortion—in fact, he LOVES that woman, and others like her.  His plan as Governor is to focus on the BIG picture rather than individual choices.  “Condemning something is easy. Addressing the root causes is what’s more challenging.”

 

We Don’t Need Diversity. We Need EXCELLENCE. 

When asked why, as a black man, he chooses to align with the Republican party and not the Democratic party, he explains that his personal value system best aligns with the Republican ideology and he also gently reminds anyone who will listen of history. Prior to 1960, most black Americans voted Republican. It was a personal act of kindness by then Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy that helped to sway black voters to the Democratic party. JFK and his campaign manager Bobby Kennedy made some phone calls and lobbied for the release of Martin Luther King Jr. from an Atlanta jail, where he had been imprisoned for leading an anti-segregation protest.  In appreciation for his son’s release Martin Luther King Sr., an influential Baptist pastor, encouraged his congregation to vote for Kennedy, and MLK Jr. himself praised Kennedy for exhibiting “moral courage of a high order.”

The ability to think critically is crucial to Zama’s definition of excellence. It is irrefutable that Dr. Zama has himself experienced discrimination as a black man in medicine, but he chooses to not dwell on the discrimination and instead chooses to espouse excellence.  Dr. Zama encourages everyone to use their own critical thinking skills to make decisions, and not to follow one another’s idealogy blindly.

 

Pennsylvania’s GenZ needs Dr. Zama for Governor

The demographic that needs to hear Dr. Zama’s story MOST is today’s youth, particularly adolescents from at risk zip codes, especially those who have turned 18 and are old enough to vote.  We need to teach today’s youth that it’s OK to vote for candidates they can put their trust in, who they can believe in, who they can see a reflection of themselves in when they look into their eyes.  They need to learn that ANYTHING is possible. They need to experience firsthand that with the right mindset, and with faith in themselves, they can accomplish anything they put their minds to.

Dr. Zama is living proof that ANYTHING is possible.

 

 

You won’t want to miss “The Candidate” episode by one of my FAVORITE podcasters, Dr. Randy Cook, host of RxForSuccess. Dr. Cook is a retired general and vascular surgeon and former radio personality with a rich smooth velvet-textured voice, a kind Southern twang and a gentle demeanor whose interview style puts his guests at ease. “The Candidate” is an episode that EVERYONE—physicians AND laypersons, (especially children and young adults)–should listen to. It tells the inspiring story of a young black boy raised in poverty in the remote West African Republic of Cameroon. He came to US as a teenager on a student visa, and went from being a homeless under-aged college student to becoming a world-renowned cardio-thoracic surgeon (who now has set his sights on a VERY DIFFERENT different kind of operation).

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