M. Patricia Rivera, M.D., a noted lung cancer specialist who serves in many leadership roles at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Wilmot Cancer Institute, is the new president of the American Thoracic Society (ATS). She is the first Latino woman to lead the large, international organization — and also the first faculty member from the UR to do so.
When Rivera took the helm at ATS on May 23, 2023, she shared some personal aspects of her life story at an installation ceremony in front of a large audience. It included many hardships — she is the daughter of Cuban-Columbian immigrants who fled Cuba during the revolution, and as a young professional, Rivera also faced the devastating loss of a child — but said her journey has provided valuable lessons along the way.
“I learned about dedication, hard work, and resilience,” Rivera said. “It’s what many immigrants need to do to survive.”
Rivera joined URMC in April of 2022. She was recruited for her expertise in lung cancer, and serves as chief, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. She also filled a newly created position at Wilmot as Associate Director for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI). The National Cancer Institute requires cancer centers to document and track efforts to improve disparities in the oncology workforce, and Rivera is charged with leading that program.
In her various roles, she emphasizes that “climbing the ladder” takes courage and help from others.
“You have to always extend a hand,” she said. “There’s a misconception that people who are successful in academic life have had a linear path. But there are a lot of setbacks along the way. Nelson Mandela said: ‘Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.’ “
Rivera lived in Cuba and Colombia before emigrating to the United States, spending her early years in Brooklyn. Although she often heard, ‘people like you can’t or don’t go to University,” her grandmother and mother encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. She was awarded an undergraduate full scholarship to Pace University, and worked two jobs while completing studies and graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in Biology. She then attended Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York, and proceeded as an intern and resident at North Shore University Hospital. Her fellowship training and the start to her career in pulmonary medicine began at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Years earlier, Rivera said, her grandmother in Cuba was denied those same opportunities for medical school because she was a woman. So, her grandmother chose pharmacy instead — and became one of the first women to graduate from the University of Havana’s School of Pharmacy. She worked hard while raising five children.
One of those children was Rivera’s mother, who studied dentistry. Eventually, Rivera’s parents fled Cuba for South America, and several years later landed in downstate New York to build a new life. But tragedy struck when Rivera’s father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive stroke.
“My mother became a widow at age 36 with four children,” Rivera said. “I watched my mother overcome many obstacles and work so hard until age 72 to raise us and provide us with an education. From her, I learned how to push through.”
“I am who I am because of the strong women in my life, who have always guided and supported me,” added Rivera, the Jane Davis & C. Robert Davis Distinguished Professor in Pulmonary Medicine at URMC.
Challenges, New Beginnings, and Success
She would need those lessons in resilience during a painful time in her own adult life, as Rivera and her husband were establishing themselves, newly married in 1993, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While her husband, Ben, a surgeon, was starting his career at the University of North Carolina, Rivera was the “trailing spouse” and put aside her academic aspirations for a time. In 1994, she was also pregnant with twin boys, and sadly, one passed away immediately after birth.
At that time, popular opinion among female professionals said it was not wise to “let them see your grief,” she said. There were no grief support groups on campus, but Rivera sought help in the broader community — and ended up becoming involved in counseling others as she made her own peace with grief. She also discovered that, despite popular opinion, being straightforward and transparent with colleagues and academic leaders, male and female, was the best course of action, she said.
A year later, she was recruited to UNC. “Experience taught me that I could start again and achieve success,” she said.
While at UNC, Rivera co-founded the first Multidisciplinary Thoracic Oncology Program (MTOP) in the country, a premier program that became the model for multidisciplinary care and defined the vital role pulmonologists play in patients with thoracic malignancies. In 2015, she also founded and directed a Multidisciplinary Lung Cancer Screening Program, and co-founded the UNC Lung Cancer Screening research programs.
At Wilmot, she leads lung cancer screening efforts, focusing on underserved communities. Her DEI work, integral to Wilmot’s future, includes implicit bias awareness training for Wilmot recruitment committees. She also led a first-ever Wilmot member demographic survey to gather anonymous baseline data on racial, ethnic, gender, urban/rural, and disadvantaged background characteristics from Wilmot faculty. The survey had 100% participation.
At the American Thoracic Society, the largest respiratory society in the world with 16,000 members, Rivera will lead a five-member executive committee. She is a longtime member of ATS, and plans to continue its mission in research and education — with a special focus on improving access to state-of-the-art care for all people, and advocacy work that curtails the sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes, particularly to young people. For the 2024 ATS conference, she hopes to conduct a presidential symposium on the advances that have been made in treating lung cancer during the past 25 years.
Despite her busy professional schedule, Rivera said, she makes time to mentor others. She was proud that many of the pulmonary fellows she helped train at UNC, plus current URMC fellows, and faculty from UNC and URMC, attended the ATS president’s installation ceremony.
Jim White, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Medicine and leader of the URMC pulmonary hypertension program, was in the audience at ATS and came away energized.
“I was so proud to call myself a U of R faculty member after this address,” he said, in an email to Department of Medicine colleagues.
“I’m sure there were many in the audience motivated and inspired to be better humans and citizens of a global community after listening to her.”