Jasmine Zapata, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics, didn’t expect to be called a superhero in her evening mail. But one night during a tiring week in late 2019 while sorting through mail she spotted a letter from the Wisconsin Medical Society. To her total surprise, she’d been named their next Superhero of Medicine.

The award honors an outstanding Wisconsin physician each year who lives out the mission of the society, going above and beyond to improve the health of their patients and community.

Jasmine Zapata
Jasmine Zapata

“I didn’t know much about the award, much less that I was nominated for it,” she says. “I just remember that it was a busy week and being so excited to read the letter. It said superheroes have nemeses and mine was racism, and that my work combatting it is very commendable.”

Originally from Milwaukee, Zapata saw many social determinants of health play out in her life and community. She says she knew from a young age that an individual’s overall health and wellbeing involved more than what happened in a hospital or clinic.

She attended Marquette University for her undergraduate degree and decided to pursue medical school. After receiving numerous offers from prestigious medical schools, she decided to attend the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Drawn by the school’s focus on the intersections of medicine and public health, once she got to Madison, she never left. As a Badger multiple times over, Zapata completed medical school, a pediatrics residency and a preventative medicine residency, a master’s in public health, and became a faculty member at UW–Madison.

Her journey was not without adversity. While at Marquette preparing for the MCAT, her teenage brother died unexpectedly, causing her to nearly drop out of school. Later during her second year of medical school, she went into premature labor during a lecture. Two hours later, her second child was born at just 25 weeks and needed multiple life-saving surgeries.

“Despite these and other challenges, I was so focused on my mission to positively impact the lives of everyone I touched, whether in the clinic or in the community, that I never gave up,” Zapata says. “I was able to spread that resilience, determination, hope, and healing to others.”

As a UW Health newborn nursery hospitalist practicing at UnityPoint Health – Meriter she is present for the first moments of a child’s life. She attends high-risk deliveries, provides newborn resuscitation if needed, performs exams and minor procedures on newborns, and engages and teaches new parents in caring for their baby. Her work in the nursery further exposed her to health disparities present in her community. She says situations that disturbed her deeply were babies leaving the hospital without a home to go to; they would spend their first days in a homeless shelter.

“That is really what drove my interest in also becoming certified in preventative medicine,” she says. “And what honestly eventually led to me decrease my time in the nursery and take on new roles, such as my recent appointment as chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for community health for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. I wanted to be able to directly influence the many social determinants of health that impact the lives of my patients and their families.”

A doctor greets new medical students
Jasmine Zapata addresses other health care professionals at a 2020 gathering for White Coats for Black Lives.

Zapata’s involvement in the community spans many areas, but she says it’s bound by the need to look at health beyond the walls of the clinic. She advocates for people having their basic needs met and finding a place in their community.

She leads empowerment workshops for the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness, is on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, works with the nonprofit Families Overcoming Struggles To Encourage Restoration (FOSTER), founded a national mentorship program and community youth choir, and more. She is also the author of a girl’s empowerment book series, which resulted in a national tour and a curriculum and music used by school districts in the Midwest.

As the 2020 Superhero of Medicine, Zapata worked with the Wisconsin Medical Society to establish a scholarship fund they hope to eventually endow. It is to support youth from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine and public health and is aptly named the Future Superhero of Medicine Award.

Still, she found it hard to accept the title of “superhero.”

“I think of trauma surgeons, emergency medicine physicians, cancer experts, or those on the front lines of COVID-19,” she says. “I didn’t think of myself as a superhero, but after I let it soak in a bit, I was able to accept it for myself. All of the things I’ve been doing for decades are just as important. It gave me the fuel to keep going.”

By Kaine Korzekwa, MS, as part of a series focusing on members of the school who received national or prominent awards during the 2020-21 academic year.