For the next week Dr. Ogonna Nnamani Silva, one of the greats of American volleyball, is spending time with her husband, Mike Silva, and their daughter, Anya, settling into their new home in Boston. Next week, she begins a six-year surgical residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery at Harvard.
New York plays a part in Nnamani Silva’s journey to becoming a surgeon. After graduating Stanford University, where she won two National Championships in volleyball, and two trips to the Olympics, winning a silver medal with Team USA in 2008, she played professionally around the world. When she was ready to transition to the next phase of her life, she joined Silva, who played football at Stanford, in NYC, taking her premed prerequisites at Columbia.
“I was really fortunate to have had a plan,” she said. “Growing up, I had asthma since I was two, so I was always in the ER in the hospital, spending time with the doctors. My interactions with them were so positive.”
The way her pediatrician and her asthma doctor took care of her inspired her at a young age to pursue medicine. School teachers encouraged her love of science. It never went away, and after marrying and becoming a mom, her dream of medical school became a reality.
“My daughter was 16 months when I started my first day of medical school, and my husband…really made this dream possible,” Nnamani Silva said. “He was there for me every step of the way.”
Her parents and in-laws were also supportive, and she graduated from University of California San Francisco School of Medicine in 2020. “Athletes, we have that grit,” said Nnamani Silva, who occasionally wore Olympic gear under her clothes for inspiration. “We are used to challenges, setbacks and failures. When things are hard, we are trained to rise to the challenge.
“There’s an even greater sense of purpose in medicine,” she added. “That inner drive kicks in.”
Lessons of teamwork came into play as well as her will to win. During her med school rotations, plastic and reconstructive surgery sparked something in her when she saw the potential to improve people’s lives after injury or illness. “I realized, this is so creative, so thoughtful,” she said. “The
breadth and depth of care from rural global settings with lower resources here and abroad to a fancy aesthetic clinic. The range is broad.”
Nnamani Silva hasn’t played volleyball since before her daughter, now six, was born, but she needs to get her game back because her daughter keeps asking to play.
“I try not to push it, but I’d be thrilled if she played volleyball,” said Nnamani Silva. “I am obsessed [with] team dynamics, team chemistry and learning environments because it was so valuable in volleyball. That’s what ultimately attracted me to the program [at Harvard]; they were really committed to being a team.”