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Patricia Rivera is a professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine.

M. Patricia Rivera, MD

What brought you to UNC Medical Center?

I moved to North Carolina when my husband Benjamin Calvo, MD, joined UNC’s department of surgery for surgical oncology. In January, 1995, I was hired to develop the multidisciplinary thoracic oncology program. My clinical expertise is lung cancer diagnosis and staging, including bronchoscopy and endobronchial ultrasound, lung cancer screening, and management of lung nodules.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

No, I wanted to host my own talk show. I wanted to interview women who had made significant contributions to society.

How did you choose your specialty?

I wanted to be a thoracic surgeon, but the chairman of medicine convinced me to do a residency in internal medicine. I had never considered subspecialty training in IM. All that changed on February 3, 1986, the first day of my three month intern rotation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That wonderful day I met the late Dr. Dorothy A. White, a brilliant physician and pulmonologist. By the end of my first week, I decided I wanted to be a pulmonologist. Dorothy continues to be my inspiration.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Most rewarding is being able to work with my colleagues to ensure patients get the best care, as we develop and mentor students, residents and fellows.

What are some of the new developments in your field of specialty?

Wow, where should I begin? In the field of lung cancer, the advances have been phenomenal, from advances in lung cancer screening, to new technologies for diagnosis and staging, and new surgical and radiation techniques. The understanding of the biology of lung cancer has led to development of new drugs and therapies particularly immunotherapy, which have resulted in improvement in five year survival rates. We have much more work to do, particularly in tobacco treatment and cessation, lung cancer screening, and early detection implementation to all patients so that disparities in lung cancer care can be diminished.

Is there a particular achievement (professional or personal) that has been most gratifying to you?

I have several personal achievements that have been gratifying: Overcoming ethnic and language barriers to succeed in my education is by far the most meaningful. Proposing marriage to my husband Ben comes in second. Ben and I recently celebrated 25 years of marriage, and we have raised three wonderful children.

On a professional level, developing the lung cancer program in 1995 and continuing to be a key member of the team has been very rewarding. The most gratifying moments in my career have been delivering the Whitehead Lecture in 1998, in recognition for mentoring and teaching medical students; delivering the First Annual Dorothy A. White, MD, Memorial Lecture, in recognition for excellence in clinical lung cancer care, and delivering the American College of Chest Physicians Presidential Honor Lecture in recognition for outstanding contribution as a CHEST faculty member and for exceptional expertise in the field of lung cancer. In 2018, the pulmonary fellows established the Faculty Teacher of the Year Award, and I was one of two faculty members honored for “outstanding contribution in mentoring and teaching of the pulmonary fellows.” I was and still am overjoyed!

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Sleep on it before you send the letter or email. Pick up the phone and ask for help, you are not expected to know it all or be able to do it all. And the best advice came from my mother when I had my first baby and she said, “hire someone to help you with the household chores, being a mother and a doctor are two full time jobs, you don’t need a third!

If you weren’t a physician, what would you like to be doing?

I still think hosting my own talk show would be awesome or perhaps a professional florist.

What hobbies do you enjoy?

Skiing, exploring national parks and making floral arrangements.

Do you have a favorite quote or life motto?

I have two favorites:

“We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

And, “The devil knows more not because he is the devil but because he is old” (Maria Ruiz-Ortiz, my grandmother)

What was the last book you read?

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro