Knowing her purpose since kindergarten has helped physician and epidemiologist Jasmine Zapata pursue her passion to make people’s lives healthier and more equitable. You could say it’s her superpower.
By Lora Strum
“Since I was 5 years old, I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor,” says Jasmine Zapata, M.D.
She has proof. In an elementary school notebook, she chose “doctor” as her future profession even though, at 5, Zapata wasn’t even sure what a doctor did. “When God has planted inside you a purpose in life, you know it at a very young age,” she explains.
Zapata, H Sci ’09, has more than made good on her aspirations. Today, she is a pediatrician and a newborn hospitalist at Unity Point Health–Meriter hospital in Madison — attending high-risk deliveries and ensuring newborns and parents have access to an empathetic physician in the vulnerable moments after a birth. Outside the hospital setting, she is an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. And that’s not all. She is an author, activist, mentor and now chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for community health at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
While her life has become a love letter to her long-standing purpose, her path has not been easy.
Zapata was pursuing her degree in biomedical sciences at Marquette when her 16-year-old brother, Aaron, died suddenly from epilepsy. Zapata’s grief was overwhelming. She had passive suicidal thoughts and even considered dropping out of school. Only with time, faith and family did she begin to heal. She used her grief to reignite her desire to be a doctor. “I wanted to prevent this feeling of loss, and children dying too early, in others,” Zapata says. “I knew it was my destiny to work to conquer premature death.”
While grieving, Zapata was grateful to have chosen Marquette, a school close to home whose faith-based values and individualized attention made her feel supported. A Burke Scholar and track star, Zapata continued her streak as a high-achiever (she had been valedictorian at Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School). After Marquette, she enrolled in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, where she juggled life as a student, wife and new mother.
Zapata’s family urged her forward “through the ups and downs” that kept coming, she says. While in medical school and raising an 18-month-old, Zapata became pregnant again. Her second child, a daughter, was born at just 25 weeks. She was 1 1/2 pounds and on life support in her early days. “I had to make the decision: Will this make me quit or keep going?” Zapata recalls. “I chose to keep going.”
Research shows Black women are at higher risk for premature birth. Zapata’s experience with her own daughter’s birth inspired her to work to improve maternal and child health. After completing medical school, she went into pediatrics in Madison, researching community health best practices and saving babies in high-risk deliveries. Seeing persistent social inequities in maternal and child health, she pursued additional medical training in preventive medicine and also received a master’s in public health.
“I wanted to prevent this feeling of loss, and children dying too early, in others. I knew it was my destiny to work to conquer premature death.”
In 2021, her clinical and academic experience collided when she was appointed to her high-profile state leadership role in community health. Today, Zapata helps integrate medical and public health policy at the federal, state and local levels. She’s focused on maternal and child health, as well as chronic disease prevention.
And as state epidemiologist, she has advised leadership on coronavirus prevention. To share information on vaccine safety, particularly in at-risk communities, Zapata has appeared on billboards and news broadcasts, and met with church congregations. “I didn’t know I’d be living through a pandemic, but everything from medicine to Marquette’s emphasis on Be The Difference to my faith made me brave enough to accept that call to serve,” Zapata says.
Seeking lives to touch, Zapata conducts extensive community-based work with local nonprofits and is the founder of the Beyond Beautiful Girls Empowerment Movement. A creative at heart, she is the author of a girl’s empowerment book series that is taught in Midwest schools.
After decades of pursuing her passion to help others live healthier and happier lives, Zapata was recognized by the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation with its 2020 Superhero of Medicine Award. Upon receiving the award, Zapata established a fund at the society’s foundation to support aspiring medical students from underrepresented backgrounds in their studies — each a Future Superhero of Medicine. Today, Zapata looks forward to continuing to advance maternal and child health and to enjoying family life. But parts of her story are yet to be written. “It feels a little bit like a cliff-hanger,” she says about her future. “I don’t try to plan my whole life out anymore. I am excited and open to all God has planned for me in my future.”
After all, a superhero’s work is never done.
Learn more about Jasmine Zapata’s work and influence at drjasminezapata.com.