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Himmelfarb Headlines - September / October 2020

Faculty Profile - Interview with Philip Zapanta, Associate Professor of Surgery

Faculty ProfileHimmelfarb Library continues this feature in our newsletter that lets us become better acquainted with our friends and colleagues at the George Washington University. In this issue we learn more about Philip Zapanta, Associate Professor of Surgery.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your current position, and why you decided to pursue a career in your field.
I was born and raised in a small college / farming town (Harrisonburg, VA) in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.  I stayed in town to attend a Christian liberal arts college, Eastern Mennonite University, to play Division III soccer and run Division III track.  I then attended medical school at the University of Virginia and married my wife (met in college) after my first year of medical school.  Instead of the recommended research summer between my 1st and 2nd year of medical school, my wife and I chose to have a LONG summer honeymoon (great decision).  I did a VERY busy surgery internship at UVA before coming up to George Washington University in 2001 for my Otolaryngology residency.  Our son was born when I was a surgery intern (2nd month in) and our daughter was born when I was a 3rd year resident.
My wife and I have been married for 23 years.  We have a son entering his junior year in college (music major) and a daughter entering her junior year in high school (will also likely do something with music in college).

I am an Associate Professor of Surgery and the Otolaryngology Residency Program Director at GW. I was a PD mentor for the medical school but switched roles to a CSR instructor as I wanted to spend more time with my medical students.  I am also a CAP preceptor.  For my paid job, I am a general otolaryngologist at the MFA and I have significant focus/interest in the surgical treatment of obstructive sleep apnea and management of facial trauma. I am also in my 18th year of service in the Army Reserves and was recently promoted to Colonel after returning from a deployment to Iraq. I joined the Army in response to the attack on our nation on 9/11.

How did you become interested in your field?
My dad is a retired general otolaryngologist and he had a very busy solo practice - he saw everything that walked / crawled through his door.  During my childhood and into my college years, he wasn't shy about showing me what he did and saw during the day and night.  I saw how hard he worked and how little he was at home but medicine grew on me.  I literally thought about every medical field especially orthopedics and sport medicine but eventually otolaryngology became the "promised land" for me.

What brought you to GW?
As I mentioned previously, I started at GW as an otolaryngology resident. Prior to my senior residency years, my thoughts were to avoid academic medicine like the plague (medical school truly burnt me out) and to return to my hometown to take over my dad's solo otolaryngology practice. While my wife and I missed the quiet country life (she was born and raised in quaint Woodstock, Vermont), we decided to stay in the DC area for several reasons. We had established deep roots in the DC area and had found a great church that had a wonderful children’s ministry. We had developed a good network of friends in the area and given that I was with the Army Reserves during the uncertainty in the Middle East, I wanted to make sure my family would be in good hands if I were to receive my marching orders.  Lastly, I discovered that I was enjoying teaching medical students and residents; coincidentally an academic job opened up in the GW MFA otolaryngology division during my chief year and I decided to stay as an attending after graduating from the GW otolaryngology residency program.

What has been your most memorable moment and biggest professional challenge?
Ha – the biggest professional challenge were my first two years of medical school. I was a good student but only because I worked hard. I wasn’t amazingly smart nor did I have photographic memory.  The amount of material that I had to digest was amazing and given that I needed to review material multiple times before I could master it didn’t help. Because I had a very understanding and supporting wife, I was able to make it past this first hurdle.

The second and most significant hurdle was the infamous otolaryngology match process.  Despite my decent board scores and above average CV, I failed to match in otolaryngology during my first attempt. This was shocking to me, my family, and my mentors.  During this time, we had found out that we were expecting our son. So instead of the conventional wisdom of taking time off for a research year to improve my chance of matching in otolaryngology, I decided to get a job to support my family and enter general surgery at UVA with the option of reapplying to the otolaryngology match the following year.  During that time otolaryngology was an early match so I had time to apply to general surgery via the regular match. I was fortunate enough to match into otolaryngology the second time around.

My most memorable moment(s) have been my Army experiences in military medicine and working closely with the soldiers.  I have served in very cold places such as winterized Fort Wainwright, Alaska and forgotten places like Fort Polk, Louisiana.  I have had the great opportunity to teach the military residents at Walter Reed and interact with the Wounded Warriors there.  Last but not certainly least, I had an amazing experience last summer in Iraq functioning as the U.S. military’s sole ENT trauma surgeon in the Iraq/Syria/Jordon combat theater.

What library resources or services have you found to be the most useful?
I absolutely love that we have access to plenty of otolaryngology journals and texts.  I use the dedicated otolaryngology resident webpage that the librarians have designed for us.  All of the librarians are extremely helpful and easily contactable.  If I can’t find something, they are quick to solve my problem.  I appreciate that the librarians will answer any question I have no matter how stupid I sound when I ask it.

Professor Zapanta and Family Whom do you admire?
I admire both sets of my grandparents who have all passed away some time ago.  All four of them were extremely strong Christians and would never pass up an opportunity to talk about the Bible and their faith.  They truly loved and accepted everyone they encountered.  What was great about them was their ability to understand everyone’s story and show unconditional love.  They also had their own unique sense of humor which made them very approachable.  If I was compared to any one of them, I wouldn’t mind.

How do you spend your free time? (or What do you do to relax?)
In my free time, I do anything that doesn’t require a lot of brain power. I wake up at 0500 every day to exercise and I also play soccer during the weekends.  I enjoy hiking with my family and just enjoy hanging out with them.  I will also ride my motorcycle every chance I get – sometimes I will take a 20-30 mile ride just to get gas!  

What advice would you give to a new faculty member just starting at GW?
Networking is key – getting to know people outside of your specialty is important especially when you need to get advice or ask for “favors.”  Be willing to help your fellow faculty member out as you will definitely reap the benefits later on. Be willing to work with the residents and medical students.  They will question you and push you but it is rewarding and fun.

To learn more about Dr. Zapanta’s journey into military medicine, please check out ENT Today’s profile of him entitled: After 9/11, Doctor’s Patriotism Led Him Across the World to Practice Otolaryngology.


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