Before she was a doctor, Silas was already on the fast track

By Aline McKenzie

When Dr. Tanisha Silas cares for a pregnant woman who is poor or uneducated or has a tough life taking care of herself and her family, she sees a reflection of her own background.

Dr. Silas, however, was able to run away — literally — from a difficult early life.

Raised by a single father in an underprivileged area of a blue-collar California town, she turned to athletics in high school and college.

  Dr. Tanisha Silas

Now a third-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology at UT Southwestern, she hustles to attend patients at Parkland Memorial Hospital. But before she arrived here she was the 2002 NCAA Woman of the Year.

“I see her athletic background come out in her focus on patient care,” said Dr. George Wendel, pro­fessor of obstetrics and gynecology, director of the residency program, and holder of the Alvin “Bud” Brekken Professorship in Obstetrics and Gynecology. “She understands that the path to excellence in any endeavor is paved by a lot of repetitive, hard work.”

Dr. Silas, 28, grew up in Vallejo, Calif., a small city northeast of San Francisco whose major industry at the time was a naval shipyard.

Her neighborhood, Country Club Crest, was a tough one despite the elegant name. A friend was killed in a dispute over a baby, and poverty surrounded her. Her father was a longshoreman.

“I knew something catastrophic could happen to me, and by the grace of God it didn’t,” she said.

When she was in middle school, she became interested in a medical career because of the needs she saw around her.

“People would talk about medicines they couldn’t afford, surgeries they needed,” she said. “I thought, ‘I may not have an example for it, but I’m going to do it.’”

She also began running track and playing basketball, following in the footsteps of her mother, who had been a track star and still holds several records at her own high school.

“I did athletics to occupy my time and stay away from bad influences,” Dr. Silas said.

Athletics taught her discipline.

“There’s nothing fun about running that hard,” she said. “You hurt all the time. There’s plenty of times after practice when you’d throw up from working so hard, but I liked the results.”

Both of her younger sisters also participated in sports. One is now a nurse, and the other, still in college, is interested in becoming a nurse practitioner.

Dr. Silas attended the University of California, Davis, where she had been recruited as an athlete. But during her freshman year, she dropped athletics because she thought she couldn’t do well in classes if she took time out for extracurricular activities.

By the next year, she was restless and realized she needed the outlet, so she returned to the field.

“[The coach] took a chance on me,” Dr. Silas said. “It had been a year since I’d trained, and I’d put on the ‘freshman 15’.”

She eventually became captain of the university’s track and field team, was named an All-American six times, and was part of the UC Davis relay teams that were conference champions from 1999 to 2001. She also sang with the school’s gospel choir.

Along the way, she met her now-husband, Rockie Young. Not surprisingly, that first meeting was in a weight room where they were working out.

She attended medical school at UC Davis, and chose UT Southwestern for her residency because of the largely indigent obstetrics and gynecology caseload at Parkland.

“Every day, I see things here that I otherwise wouldn’t,” she said. For instance, in medical school, a teacher told the students that they would rarely see an ectopic pregnancy, which is a life-threatening condition in which the fertilized egg implants outside the uterus.

Dr. Silas says she sees about one a week. “I promise I will not miss an ectopic pregnancy when I get out of here,” she said.

Her background also allows her to give better care, she believes. It’s easy to tell a pregnant woman to eat a healthful diet, but she understands how difficult it can be to get to a good grocery store or to change culturally entrenched eating habits, she said.

“That’s what can set a doctor apart: knowing what her patients are going through,” Dr. Silas said. “Once I fell in love with obstetrics and gynecology, I realized I could make a big difference. We permeate many different areas. The woman usually makes decisions about food for the whole household.”