When Deepa Dandge was strolling the halls at Silverado High School in Henderson she already had a fascination for medicine, though the thought of becoming a doctor seemed distant.
Little did she know that she would one day stroll the halls of University Medical Center as a first-year resident who aspires to become a family practitioner when she completes her training after three years.
“Hopefully, high school students will be encouraged by my story and pursue medicine,” said Dandge, 28.
The daughter of Viju and Dileep Dandge, chemists who emigrated from India to the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Las Vegas in 1989, Dandge followed in her brother’s footsteps to study biochemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“I was always fascinated with medicine, but I didn’t think I was necessarily smart enough to be a doctor, in all honesty,” Dandge said of her high school days. “Maybe I was selling myself short.”
Dandge learned in college that a fascination could become a reality. When her brother, Sachin, volunteered at a hospice that needed more volunteers, Dandge said she jumped at the chance. The experience changed her life. Her mission to provide companionship for those preparing to die encouraged her to do more.
“These people were facing death and coming to terms with it, and it was just eye-opening to me,” Dandge said. “I was sitting here and getting to know them and talking to them. It just sparked an interest for me.”
That interest led Dandge to volunteer for the University of Nevada School of Medicine and its student-run community outreach clinic in which women and children would come in for exams and immunizations.
A year after graduating in 2008, Dandge started at UNSOM in 2009 and spent two years in Reno with her classroom studies before returning to Las Vegas for the final two years of a clerkship at UMC. Upon graduation, she started her residency in July at UMC as part of a three-year program that will launch her career as a family practitioner.
Choosing that direction in medicine wasn’t easy, she said. She enjoyed every specialty she trained in during her clerkship and felt she was missing out on when she focused on a single discipline. As a family practitioner, she can be involved in all aspects of medicine. She opted for that path after she attended a national conference on family medicine.
“They seem to be the happiest with their career and family life, and that’s something that was important to me,” said Dandge, who is in a relationship with a Clark County firefighter with two boys. “I wanted to be involved in all aspects of medicine but not be seen solely as a doctor. I wanted people to think of me as a doctor who is also a mom, a sister and a friend. Family medicine helps that balance.”
As a resident, Dandge works 60 to 80 hours a week, and “stressful” best describes the experience, she said.
“Our school prepares us for it pretty well, but there’s no way not to be terrified on your first day and in your first few months,” Dandge said. “All of a sudden you go from having a short white coat that signals to everybody in the hospital that you’re a medical student to having a long white coat that says you’re a physician. It’s pretty terrifying. But I was well-prepared and don’t know if I would have been if I have gone to another medical school.”
Dandge said she typically arrives at UMC by 6 a.m. and meets patients before the attending physician arrives. There’s no way to predict when she will be done for the day, so it’s vital to have an understanding family because you come home later than expected or have to cancel weekend plans on short notice, she said.
“It’s like being in a tornado,” Dandge said of a first-year residency. “You can kind of see it coming, and when it does you try to survive until it’s over. Once you survive it, you can look back and say ‘I can’t believe that happened, and I made it through it.’ ”
On the day she was interviewed for this article, Dandge saw her usual range of patients, including one who was thought to be stable but developed an irregular heartbeat requiring an electric shock while she called out the patient’s history and background, she said.
“You have to run through the steps in your head and compose yourself,” Dandge said. “You have to remind yourself you know what you’re doing. You can’t show people you are nervous or unsure. It’s a teaching hospital, and there are always people around you who can help. The whole experience helps you build confidence.”
Dandge said the patient survived, but she knows working with patients who don’t have access to health care and come to the hospital in bad shape means she’s going to lose some.
“You never get used to it, and it’s hard every time you see it,” she said.