Science came easy to Dr. Arpita Gupta DePalma, and she had a curiosity about the human body and how it worked.
That, along with her father’s teachings, left no question about her career path once she arrived at Clemson University as an undergraduate. She would major in biological sciences, go to medical school and become a physician.
“My father taught us that you had to work hard and have an honorable career, and you did that with integrity, by being authentic with how you present yourself and by establishing relationships with people,” said DePalma, whose father immigrated to the U.S. from India in the ‘70s with $8 in his pocket and worked his way up from almost nothing. “That belief system was ingrained in us from day one.”
DePalma was admitted to the Medical University of South Carolina’s early assurance program as a sophomore, guaranteeing her a spot as long as she maintained her grades and met other requirements.
“There was no question about what I was going to do.”
While she was set on that career path, the 1995 Clemson graduate admits she didn’t realize at first the full extent of the training required after medical school.
“It was never really fully laid out to me how much time it would take to become a doctor. That shows that the influences we have around us oftentimes guide us on a path that we may not fully understand from the beginning,” DePalma said. “Fortunately, medicine and healing others was always a passion of mine.”
After finishing her training, DePalma, who lives in Henrico, Virginia, worked as a part-time pediatrician, first in a multi-physician practice and then covering for doctors on leave through her own company, Peds Proxy, MD. She prioritized her family and focused on positions that allowed her to do just that.
But after co-founding Virginia iSpine Physicians in 2011 along with her husband, DePalma found herself working up to 80 hours a week managing the administrative side of the practice.
“It was draining, exhausting,” she said, “and it was honestly changing the way I was showing up for my people, my family, my friends. I just was always very frustrated, resentful and angry that I was spending so much time doing something that I didn’t love. Medicine was my passion, but my work life had shifted to all administrative tasks.”
Then, the pandemic hit.
“Honestly, that was one of the biggest gifts that could have happened because it put everything at a standstill and gave me a chance to gain perspective,” she said.
In the seven weeks that their medical practice had to shut down per state mandate, Dr. DePalma said, “I recognized how consumed I had become in running my life as a human doing rather than a human being. Up until then, I made every effort to demonstrate and exemplify the perfectionism that I expected from myself and others, the impossibly high standards and lifestyle I had imagined for myself, and the self-generated urgency I had about getting my to-do list done. All these factors were contributing to my discomfort and unhappiness. But I hadn’t yet realized that I was the source of my own pain.”
She finally hit her low in October of 2020, when the medical practice experienced nearly 100% staff turnover after re-opening in May that year.
“We had all these employees that we had kept on the payroll. We were dipping into our savings to support them while not taking a paycheck ourselves. And then, for their own reasons, all but one of them did not stay on with the practice,” she said. “That’s when I hit an all-time low with anger, resentment, frustration and disappointment.”
Changing her mindset
She turned to a mindset coach and enrolled in a coaching program for women physicians, a decision that not only transformed her life, but would eventually alter her career path as well.
“I started to thrive. I recognized that I wanted to adjust my priorities and that I was ultimately the one in charge of doing that,” Dr. DePalma said.
Knowing how coaching helped her, Dr. DePalma went on to complete multiple trainings to become a trauma informed advanced certified mindset coach serving primarily women physicians and professionals. She founded Thought Work, MD in February 2021.
“The culture of medicine is that we take care of everybody else, and a lot of times, that comes at the expense of ourselves. Sometimes, we carry that forward in life for everything else we do and we continue to put everything else first before we take care of ourselves,” she said. “One of the biggest foundational concepts of mindfulness and well-being is building in time for yourself first. We have to unlearn delayed gratification as physicians.”
Creating your own results
Dr. DePalma said it’s gratifying and fulfilling to share the tools with other people and see them recognize that it’s how they’re thinking that is creating the results they’re currently having.
“Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings drive our actions, and our actions create our results. So, if we can start to change how we think about things we can change how we feel, and this drives us to take the actions that create the results we want in our lives,” she said.
Another source of joy for Dr. DePalma is reminiscing about her days at Clemson and visiting her favorite places in South Carolina where she spent eight years of her life in school.
“The biggest impact Clemson had on me was being able to explore and meet people from all different backgrounds and learning to accept them for who they are. That collegiality, the camaraderie, seeing that Tiger paw on a car driving by even up here in Virginia, I just feel that those are my people,” she said.
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