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Dr. Livania Zavala


My story begins several thousand miles south in Caracas, Venezuela. I come from a big family, consisting of 3 brothers and three sisters. After graduating from medical school at Universidad Central de Venezuela. I came to the United States in pursuit of my pediatric residency, where I had the opportunity to do so in Austin, Texas. I decided to follow my residency with a three-year fellowship studying Infectious diseases in Tulane University, in the city of New Orleans. My mother is a retired teacher, my father was a lawyer and a teacher. Retrospectively, after studying ADHD as much as I have, I have been able to realize how my ADHD was affecting me growing up (with some instances dating all the way back to elementary). I can still remember constantly finding myself staring out the classroom window, time flying by, my mind running wild while picturing the mythological creatures we used to learn about in school, letting those same imaginations come to life through my pencil on my notebook while the teacher would continue on about other topics, topics that I found myself having to cram at home hours later, while all my friends were asking where I was because they wanted to play. I graduated high school at the top 10%, but luckily, I was in a very structured, demanding private school that was able to stimulate me every day (something I would soon learn was rare in schools/programs). I remember multiple field trips, famous guest speakers, and learning at laboratories with hand on experiments as early as 7th grade. 

The problems started at medical school. I was not able to understand how I failed to be in the top 10% despite my extraneous efforts. I remember recording everything I was reading,  and replaying them over and over( yet my recorded words continued to be drowned out by my mind craving any sort of excitatory stimulus). Reading paragraphs multiple times was not enough, I sometimes found myself highlighting books with all the colors of the rainbow, and even then, the colors would only help me some. I made note cards, rereading them over and over. But when the exam day arrived,  I would rarely get A’s. I was a victim of bubbling the wrong answer, not understanding the question entirely, or the worst one of all, moving through my exam too fast and reading the question incorrectly. If I had to present orally, I would get A’s plus extra credit, but that was not always the way we were evaluated. I realized I had a disadvantage that my peers did not (although I had yet to put my finger on it), yet my motivation to become a doctor remained unphased, I knew that I was gonna have to work harder than most, and although overwhelmed, I was not going to let that stop me.. 

When I came to the United States, I took the tests to validate my medical studies, the USMLE. I knew I had to study intensely, I utilized multiple strategies, flash cards, highlighters, recorders, until all I saw in my dreams were diagrams and notes. I even helped several classmates study for the tests, they would ask ME to help them study. I went into the exam expecting an A for my efforts, but the results were just barely passing in the first attempt, then I knew this arbitrary form of analysis did not represent my deep understanding about medicine. This caused me to lose opportunities in Universities I dreamed of, but all my colleagues did (yes the same colleagues who came to ME for help). Nevertheless, during my pediatric residency at Austin, I received each year  “Resident of the year award”, and became the chief resident of the pediatric program. This was due to us being evaluated on our genuine understanding of medicine. Not some black and white test. 

Over the years I was blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. Both have minds reminiscent of mine; they both have ADHD. I have walked the road of parents with ADHD children, and that is how I can empathize with my patients and patients with ADHD when they come to see me.

My son cannot be any brighter and sweet. When he was a small child, he seemed to be moved by a motor all day long. Interestingly enough, this motor would slow down when he used to build very complex Lego's, read book series that I believed were past his IQ level, and began to play tennis. He used to love video games, but that was something me and my husband limited while he was growing up. What was the hardest we went through? I would say it would be several years of him being misunderstood by a few teachers, and failed by a catholic private school system. He had to abandon a catholic private school system, as parents we felt our son was being targeted by teachers due to his inability to stay still or quiet, and so we made the decision to move him to public school for his mental well-being, where he was able to play for the tennis varsity team for four years in a row. 

How has his ADHD impacted his life? We are still finding out how controlling his ADHD helps him now (in college) when he multitask in his daily life better than many other students.

My daughter is a completely different story. Her ADHD is the inattentive type. She was diagnosed later in life, because she never struggled in school, her main issues were forgetting sweaters, lunch boxes and other items at school. But when she arrived in middle school, her ADHD became much more prominent. Many teachers, (under the assumption that ADHD goes along with bad grades) did not agree with the diagnosis. Teachers told me many times comments like “she can do math in her head”, “she can find different ways to do math problems”, “she can apply concepts in other scenarios”. and I was very proud. Other teachers (the ones that could not see her mind for what it was),  spent their time pointing out her careless mistakes, missed due dates, and losing homework which they call being “unmotivated”. My daughter is a natural born independent, she loves projects and has a handful in the back of her mind at any given moment, she moves groups, and if they don't agree with her, she continues to move forward without them. Unfortunately, due to her lack of organizational skill, she does not complete most of the projects she decides to take on. COVID pandemic has been particularly hard for her. During this time, she decided to move track of her study field, and changed from an engineer, to a psychology driven field where she can help teenagers with ADHD in the future, but in a more abstract manner.  She, like her brother, is in college, about to start face to face classes after being online for the last 2.5 years. I have no doubt she will flourish, exceed expectations, and she might be back in her engineer path or reaffirm her non abstract plans.

Why am I studying ADHD now?

 Because in Pediatrics there are not enough psychiatrists or behavioral specialists that can see children with ADHD. I have been training in ADHD for the last 4 years, and every day my  understanding of how the lack of ADHD specialized pediatricians and psychologists truly affects our children. Because ADHD is not just prescribing medicines, it is understanding what the families are going through, why the children are acting a certain manner, what the children truly need, what changes at home can help, and how I can teach parents, families and teachers to understand the needs of those children and teenagers, I believe that ADHD is something I was born to specialize in.

 It is a disservice to yourself to not listen to the testimonials of ADHD patients, parents, counselors and my own webinar. 

I truly believe that ADHD is not a disorder, ADHD is a gift that some of us are given, some may not understand it or comprehend it, but when ADHD is truly used to its full potential, it can be a superpower that will aid your child through life. 

“With great power comes great responsibility”

-Dr. Livania Zavala-Spinetti

Please check this news: Valley pediatrician hosting virtual clinic for students with ADHD ahead of school year

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