Shilpa D., 28 born in Cartersville, GA. I grew up in Atlanta, GA until I was 15 and then moved to Vienna VA for high school. I return to Vienna all the time, so I guess Vienna is home now.
Where is home?
SHILPA D., MD
Founder, The Aseemkala Initiative
The hardest question to answer. I am actually not sure. Born in GA, raised in VA, went to undergrad and med school in upstate NY and then residency in NH all the while traveling to and from India. I guess home is where my parents are, so Vienna VA.
Where did you attend college and what did you study?
Union College. I was lucky to be in an 8 year MD/MBA/MS program that fed into Albany Medical College, so I was able to study Biology and Spanish and Healthcare Policy.
What is your current job title?
PGY-1 in Obstetrics and Gynecology Resident at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center - (for those wondering: this means Shilpa is a medical doctor in her first year of specialty training post graduation from medical school).
What motivates you? Or in other words, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Honestly, fear of coming in late is always a good motivator to get up on cold morning at 5 AM. I think in residency, each day is a challenge and a sense of duty really keeps you going even when you don’t want to. In terms of general motivation, I find that in interpersonal moments, learning someone’s story, connecting with a few of my own, and realizing how history, economics, and religion all seem to manifest in how a patient ends up where they are today. The “why” behind their realities always inspires and humbles me. There seems to be currents of systemic powers that perpetuate illnesses that should have never been an issue. This reality energizes me to keep pushing the idea that people deserve the opportunity to tell their stories in their authentic voice and to know that physicians and healthcare workers who listen can improve how they approach each individual’s process of healing. Once these stories are shared, we can start to do the larger work of changing the ways in which injustice work at higher levels.
Who is most important to you and why? You can include more than one person.
My parents most definitely. Their story is one that reminds me that my reality today could have been so different had they not made the choices they did. My mother grew up the youngest of five kids and lived in a broken home. My mother tells me that she had a lot of interests as a child, often spending time away from home with her friends whose families demonstrated love, encouragement, and attention. She would perform in dramas, play games, and study without anyone caring where she was or what she did. My father was the eldest of four and was a bright student and dutiful son. He unfortunately fell into bad company when his family moved to the city and tells me constantly that meeting my mother changed his life. My mother was obsessed with America and the opportunities that coming to “Amreecah” would bring, so she encouraged my father to apply for a work visa. When he got it, she joined him and they built a life here. When they tell me their story, I can see millions of ways in which my life today could have been different. If they had stayed in India, if my mother didn’t have interests outside of school, if my dad stayed in bad company, if they had not married, if they didn’t go for a green card, if they didn’t love my sister and I…They teach me the importance of having a vision and going for it, without thinking “what if this fails”. They also taught me the resilience you need when it does fail and you have to try again. Not everything will be perfectly positioned for you. You take what you get and you run with it.
Describe your perfect day.
Drinking that perfect cup of pour over coffee in a coffee shop after going to the gym. Sitting in that coffeeshop, preferably in the seat next to the window with that sepia lighting on the table while I actually respond to emails on time and complete to-do lists, including updating the Aseemkala website and applying for a few dance festivals while I listen to some “chillstep” on Youtube. The evening would be spent listening to music while reading a physical book and spending time with my family and fiancé. An exceptionally perfect day is creating a choreography from start to finish using a patient story and a story from mythology, along with music. To be honest, I don’t think there has ever been a day like this ever in my life.
Tell me about your dream. Do you have one? What does it consist of?
So, here’s my dirty secret. I don’t want to practice hospital medicine forever. I have known this before starting medical school, which made medical school one of the most painful processes of my life. Everything I love about medicine, specifically OB-GYN, is outside of the hospital walls. I love creating community centered health programs that use medicine as a tool to address larger social, religious, political, and economic realities of indigenous, low income women. My dream is to develop five sites for the Aseemkala Initiative clinics, where I, along with my awesome team of midwives both American and local, local OB-gyns, public health scientists, anthropologists and community workers, design clinics by and for the women they serve. These clinics will be based on local customs and cultures with medical care and social work by members of their own community trained and overseen by us until they are able to continue independently. These clinics will also have meeting spaces for local women, kitchens for cooking lessons, and spaces for arts. The idea will be to form a hub for women where they can start to realize the potential of their own cultural knowledge and rituals while learning about health and connecting it to what they know. I would want to have a team at each site dedicated to preserving (or not, depending on what the community wants) cultural knowledge. Too often, as generations pass, we lose histories and information we can never gain back. These five sites (which are based on the five sites I worked at during my year as a Watson Fellow and where I still have friends and a home) would act as pilot sites to transform healthcare for indigenous women. Like I said, it’s crazy, but I am going to dedicate my life to making this happen.
Describe your proudest moment. Why did you choose this one?
So, my proudest moment is when I was 11. My parents, little sister, and I were on our way to Madhurai and were quickly ushered into a dingy travel agency in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. Of course, it was the coolie who essentially kidnapped our suitcases and had us chasing him into the tubelight lit one room space. A moustached man immediately started to sell us travel packages to Madhurai which my parents warily began reviewing. My dad then decided to buy the most important treasure for us traveling in India in the land of hole in the ground toilets and mugs of water for washing—a roll of toilet paper. There were two men hanging at the door. My dad walked through, followed by my sister. I walked through the door and all of a sudden, felt a pinch on my buttocks. It felt immediately shocking and disgusting and I ran to my dad without looking at the men and told him what happened. He glared but said nothing. As we walked back, I was filled with dread at having to go through the door again…worried that the pinch and shame would happen again. The men weren’t there and we passed through with no issue. All of a sudden, I saw one of the men walking through the door with a tray of tea in his hands and suddenly, I had this feeling that this was my one opportunity…the opportunity that, if missed, would haunt me forever. Without saying a word, I stuck my foot out and the man tripped over it, spilling scalding hot tea all over his face and hands. It seemed like an eternity of silence until the men started to scream, the moustached travel agent lunged at my dad cursing me, and I stood there, foot out, shocked that it worked. Then, out of the chaos, my mother stood up and screamed, “Did he hurt you?” to me and I replied “yes”. And she grabbed the travel agent and began to threaten him for letting anything happen to me. To this day, more than anything else, this remains the proudest moment of my life. It showed me that I am courageous enough to act promptly and wise enough to know how important that action was for my own well being and story. It also reminded me of how powerful my mother is…her rage literally matching the burns on the man’s face. Women often forget their power in situations for many reasons. Reliving this memory makes me remember the importance of bringing that memory back.
Is there something about yourself you wish you could improve? Why?
There is a Buddhist belief that all emotion is a range. Love in one direction is hate in another. Compassion is the same emotion as sorrow. For me, my vulnerability both serves me and harms me. I wish I could find a way to be vulnerable to receive stories humbly without letting the stories crush me. To do solid community work requires one to know how to protect their own soul. I don’t have that ability. I hope to improve it.
What is one thing you wish people knew about you?
That I love connecting everyone to everyone else. I find immense joy in hearing people’s ideas and either encouraging them to pursue it or connecting them to people to create their projects or manifest their ideas. I absolutely hate the word “networking”…it has this superficial quality that oozes a sense of using someone for their own gain…I prefer the word “connecting”. I am weird and see people a bit like superheroes. It feels very “Captain Planet/Avengers” when people rise up with their ideas and reflect their inner potential on the outside.
Share a happy memory.
A happy memory would be jumping on the trampoline with my little sister, coming up with games to keep us entertained on summer days.
Share a sad memory.
Ah, studying for step 1 and walking out of that test, feeling like I had failed and realizing I should have focused more on medical school than my passion projects. What made it sad was realizing that my sadness was not from personal failure but rather, people realizing I had failed and judging me accordingly. Knowing that I prioritized the opinions of others than my own made me realize how low my self-esteem really was and how much sadness I carried about myself.
Tell me about your creative outlets.
In med school, we created programs like “Artspace” with workshops on art for medical students, started the branch of Healer’s Art, and ran a refugee women’s traditional dance group. I am the Creative Director and Founder of the Aseemkala Initiative, which is an organization dedicated to using traditional arts to tell stories of women in medicine. The idea is based on one year of research on traditional dance as women’s medicine in Kampala, Khamlia, Morocco, Lonquimay, Chile, Pucallpa, Peru, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia and also on my own background studying and performing Kuchipudi dance.
Hippocrates one said that the patient tells you the diagnosis if you listen carefully. The more I listened, the more parallels I saw between these stories on the hospital floor with the stories from Kuchipudi dance mythologies. The despair of the attending reminded me of a story of a wise warrior who tried to make a King see the error of his ways to help his people. The sadness in dying reconnected to a story about a Queen who returned her sons to their father before falling deep into the Earth for her final rest. These stories had echoes in other cultures as well. Each religion was a spellbinding collection of morals through stories to teach humanity how to live the realities of life—the realties that so often were realized in the hallways of the hospital.
Stories have always been the home of some of the greatest lessons on being human, on overcoming illness, and developing the resilience needed to survive. Medicine today is a broken system, trying to heal with traditional techniques, such as storytelling in Narrative Medicine, dancing through Dance movement therapists, using sounds in music therapy. If we want to empower women here and around the world to seek health, we need to connect what is inherently theirs with the medicine introduced to them. The dances on stories of medicine cross religions, histories, and politics in the Aseemkala Initiative. This is the foundation for the dream of eventually turning the table and using medicine to uplift what these women around the world already carry.
At the Aseemkala Initiative, we use stories of women in medicine to create choreographies in traditional dance forms, hoping to become a living bridge connecting cultures and systems to tell stories that inspire us all. This is the first step in a long journey of transforming women’s medicine, hoping to show the potential for healing in traditional dances. As William Osler says, “The good physician treats the disease, the great physician treats the patient who has the disease”. Here, we perform it.
Please see our workshops with women, our choreographies, our festivals and performances, and our research and our first cohort of Aseemkala Choreography and Research Fellows at www.aseemkala.org
What are you most afraid of?
Of losing people I love. My strength comes from the people in my life who unconditionally love me (my family and fiance’) and I cannot imagine how I can keep going when they are gone.
We all have turning points in our lives that set us off in a different direction. These catalytic moments can include heartbreak, a meaningful conversation, an injury, the death of a loved one, and so many other things… Tell me about a turning point in your life that altered your trajectory. What did you learn from this moment?
When I performed my Rangapravesham, my solo dance piece on the 10 forms of Vishnu, one of the Hindu Gods, became a moment when I finally understood what it meant to “dance with abandon”…where your body moves and your mind aligns and stops thinking, stops seeing the audience, and all you hear is the music in your ears and you just know. It changed my entire understanding of traditional dance as a power of healing and realigning the broken mind from body. It’s probably something people have known for a while, clearly because every culture seems to have a traditional dance form.
Have you ever felt like giving up? Describe the moment. How did you convince yourself to continue?
Yes. All through medical school. I definitely lost my way. I was in a place where everything I wanted had seemingly no place in the rigid structure of medical training. I think a part of my held on because I felt the only way to impact change in medicine was through having the ability to use medical knowledge to make comments on the needs of community. That realization got me through the first two years. The next two years reminded me of why I loved medicine in the first place. It brought back that story I had been missing.
Has there been a time where you knew you were in the exact right place? Tell me about it.
Oh my goodness YES! Have you ever traveled before? If so, you will most likely agree with this fact. Everytime I was in the right place at the right time, I knew it because encounters would happen and people would come into my life as if predestined in a weird way. I was in Lima when I happened to be the same hostel at Patch Adams’ team, where I met one of the student leaders of the Afro-Peruvian leadership group, who then told me to go to this dance show where I met a wonderful dance teacher who taught me Marinera Limena and Zapateo, dances of Peru. Felt like when you send a specific request out into the world, the universe tends to reciprocate accordingly.
How do you keep your mind sharp and your body strong? Do you exercise? Do you read? Do you do crossword puzzles?
I run daily and meditate and dance. I also have to read for residency so that helps academically. And I watch lots of dance videos on youtube. Not sure if that is sharp, but it keeps me active.
Who do you admire and why?
I do have this belief that we should never meet our heroes to prevent disappointment. But my heroes are Dr. Nott, who helps with training physicians in Syria perform surgeries to save lives and Dr. Mukwege, director of the Panzi hospital, who lives with the people and treats women from the horrible impact of war. Their selflessness and empowerment of local people through medicine is what I admire. Takes a lot of self sacrifice to do what they do as well, which I hope to one day aspire to be able to do.
Thank you Shilpa, for sharing your story! Be sure to check out Shilpa’s Aseemkala Initiative. Do you have a dream? What does it look like? Let us know in the comments.