Valeria Silva Merea, MD, a laryngologist specializing in head and neck surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, knows how to handle competition. In her days before medicine, she competed on the world stage in the water: as a two-time Olympic swimmer (2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing) for her native Peru , a three-time Peruvian national and South American continental record holder for breaststroke events, and a multiple gold medalist at the 2008 South American Swimming Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
ENTtoday: How did you become interested in competitive swimming?
Dr. Silva Merea: I learned how to swim when I was pretty young. When I was 5 years old, my parents took my brother and me to get swim lessons. I’m from Lima originally, which is right on the coast, so learning to swim was more of a safety issue rather than just a sport to participate in. But I found I really loved swimming. Soon after, we became members of Club Regatas de Lima, a local leisure/sports club, and I took more advanced swimming lessons there. The club wanted me to be part of its swim team when I was about seven years old. I loved competing with their team—I continued swimming there until I was 22. I also competed for my high school’s swim team in several national and continental junior championships.
People tend to think of swimming as an individual sport, but really … you constantly work in cooperation with coaches and trainers. In the same way, physicians and other medical personnel support and work in partnership with each other.
ENTtoday: What was it like participating in national- and world-level
VSM: The Olympics were an amazing experience; it’s the dream of any athlete, so when I decided that I wanted to pursue swimming competitively,
representing my country at the Olympics was my ultimate goal. At the University of Michigan, I was a member of the swim and diving team, and participated in the collegiate championships. I was also part of the Peru national swimming team, and [was] selected as one of 12 athletes to represent my country at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, after winning the 50-meter breaststroke at the South American Championships. I was so thankful to reach my goal in Athens in 2004, and was thrilled to go again to Beijing in 2008. We were a pretty small team, but it was incredible. I was also fortunate to participate in several world championships. I got to travel to countries all around the world thanks to swimming; it was a really great experience.
Beijing was my last meet as a competitive swimmer. I started medical school five days after competing in the Beijing Olympics—I flew directly from China to New York to attend orientation.
ENTtoday: How did you become interested in medicine?
VSM: I have a couple of relatives who are physicians—one of them was my pediatrician growing up—so I was always impressed by and attracted to medicine. I also really enjoyed learning about the biology of the human body in high school and college, and so I thought medicine would be a good fit for me.
Initially, I thought I would go into sports medicine (a lot of former athletes do), but I didn’t really enjoy the orthopedic surgery rotation very much. But I do really like surgery. At the time I attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, the otolaryngology rotation was mandatory, and I really loved it—I liked the people, the area of the body we focused on, treating patients both medically and surgically, and of all ages, performing a variety of procedures, big and small, and seeing a variety of complaints. That rotation was behind my decision to pursue the otolaryngology field. The subspecialty I chose is laryngology, although I still do see some patients for general otolaryngology work.
ENTtoday: Have any of the lessons you learned from competitive swimming been helpful in your otolaryngology practice?
VSM: For work and for life in general, participation in sports gives you a lot of important skills, including discipline and time management. When you compete, you put in a lot of work and challenge yourself to reach higher goals in training, and, if you’ve worked hard, you’ll see the results. I really enjoyed challenging myself in swim practice and then seeing if I could still reach those goals in competition. You also learn to deal with successes and disappointments. You also learn perseverance—eventually you’ll get the results you want, but there will be bumps in the road getting there.
I also enjoyed the social aspect of swimming. People tend to think of swimming as an individual sport, but really, you train and race alongside other people, you constantly work in cooperation with coaches and trainers, and you travel as a team. In the same way, physicians and other medical personnel support and work in partnership with each other, using their individual skills. You’re never by yourself in medicine, and your successes are shared with the team.
Amy E. Hamaker is a freelance medical writer based in California.