By Nancy Sokoler Steiner
Before pediatric surgeon Veronica (Ronnie) Sullins, MD (RES ’16), began her career in medicine, she had one on the playing field as a professional soccer player.
Medicine was, in fact, hardly on her radar when she was an undergrad at Stanford University, which she attended on a full soccer scholarship. She was a biology major, and her advisors suggested that she take a few extra classes to satisfy pre-med requirements — just in case.
“I scoffed at the idea,” Dr. Sullins says. But she took the classes anyways.
Soccer always was in her blood. As children growing up in Los Altos, California, she and her twin sister Lorrie idolized their older brother Greg. “We got into most sports because he did,” she says. Ronnie and Lorrie Fair began playing AYSO soccer when they were 4 years old, and they started playing club soccer in the seventh grade. Their team won the state and regional titles for the under-14 age group and went on to win the national championship.
The sisters also were part of the Olympic Development Program, a feeder system for the United States National Team. In 1992, Lorrie made the regional team, comprised of 14 western states; Ronnie didn’t. “I was moping — but deep down I knew that Lorrie spent more hours with a soccer ball than I did,” she says.
Still, she kept practicing and playing and went on to earn a scholarship to attend Stanford and play for the Cardinal, then earned spots on the U.S. under-21 women’s national soccer team and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. In 1997, she was called in to play in a game against England in which Lorrie also was playing; it was the first time that two sisters played together for the women’s national team.
She graduated from Stanford in 2000 and was drafted by the New York Power for the inaugural season of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). After two seasons — during which she started in every game, 42 total — she went to the San Diego Spirit. That lasted another year, until the WUSA suspended operations due to financial deficits.
What to do? She had completed her pre-med requirements and so decided to take an MCAT class. “I was one foot in, one foot out,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I don’t do well on this exam, I won’t apply.’”
But soccer had taught her how to win, and she did well and applied to medical school. When she did her clinical rotation in surgery, Dr. Sullins knew that she had found her new calling.
“I loved it,” she says. “I loved the immediacy of repairing something and making someone better.”
Dr. Sullins considered becoming a trauma or orthopaedic surgeon — she had two surgeries on her ankle when she was 14, and she was impressed by the surgeon who treated her — but opted instead for pediatric surgery. “Children are so resilient and so innocent,” she says. “Most of the time, parents don’t know what to do, and they are thinking, ‘Why my child? Why not me?’ It’s very emotionally gripping.”
As the mother of two boys, she understands the feeling on more than just an intellectual level. When her firstborn was 6 weeks old, he required laparoscopic surgery to correct an obstruction of the stomach. “I was a total wreck,” Dr. Sullins says. “I tell families, ‘It doesn’t matter how big or how small the procedure, it’s still a surgery.’”
She appreciates the variety that comes with her role. “While general surgery in adults has been whittled away by all the subspecialists, pediatric surgery is one of the last bastions of true general surgery. We are dealing with everything from head to toe — other than orthopaedic and intracranial surgery. We really operate everywhere.”
Dr. Sullins sees several parallels between her roles as a pediatric surgeon and as a former professional soccer player. For one, there’s nothing like experience. “There’s a technical aspect to the game that comes from hours of working with a soccer ball,” she says. “In surgery, also, it boils down to how many hours you have spent in the operating room. In soccer, there’s no substitute for game-time experience. In surgery, simulation is important, but there’s no substitute for the pressure to perform when it’s really happening.”
And as a surgeon, she also functions as part of a team — just as she did on the soccer field. To succeed, a player depends on the skills of her teammates, and she knows that her teammates depend on her skills. As a physician, Dr. Sullins looks to other specialists to assist her in her work, at the same time knowing that they rely on her expertise in pediatric surgery.
Dr. Sullins no longer plays soccer; injuries while playing semi-professionally during medical school put an end to that. But she still enjoys competition and plays beach volleyball. And she loves to watch her sons play soccer. “I don’t want to be a tiger mom,” she says. “I’m happy to be a cheerleader for whatever sport they want to play.”
And if that sport is soccer? “I’ll think about if I might want to coach them,” she says.
It’s still in her blood.
Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.