Dr. Alpana Desai is passionate about empowering her patients as she leads them through treatment. She says the best part of her job is hearing their life stories. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO
BY DONNA CRARY
For Alpana Desai, being an oncologist is more than just coming up with a treatment plan and guiding a patient through the ordeal of cancer. Vivacious, intelligent and witty, she is passionate about her career and the role that she plays in her patients’ survival.
“I want to make sure that everyone who is going through the process can be at peace, enjoy their life, and live in the moment,” she said. “Whether it’s an early stage tumor and they’re scared about doing the chemo — or not doing the chemo — and afterwards they’re always terrified that it will come back. Or the ones who are more advanced and we’re trying to give them as much time as we can. Empowering each person is what I feel most strongly about.”
Born in Chicago, Desai moved with her family to Anderson, Ind. — a small town near Indianapolis — when she was 5 years old. Her father, Ashok Desai, was a mechanical engineer for RCA and later General Motors. She fondly remembers her childhood in the Midwest.
“My parents were forced to assimilate, and I felt like it was a good way to grow up,” she recalled. “Where I went to school, I was like the only Indian person. I got the best of both worlds. The people were so nice and friendly. We never felt excluded or discriminated.”
It was in the first or second grade that a teacher planted a seed in Desai’s mind and encouraged her to consider medicine as her future career path. As the years went by, she excelled in math and science. Yet, she was drawn to learning about the human experience through history and social sciences.
She attended Northwestern University in Chicago and studied biomedical engineering as part of its honors program. But after three years, Desai felt life pulling her in a different direction. She left Northwestern and enrolled into the medical school at Indiana University. This was where she discovered her love for oncology.
“I already had an inkling about oncology through molecular biology at Northwestern, but Indiana University had a really strong oncology program,” Desai said. “Larry Einhorn was my senior adviser, and in oncology, he’s a big name. He was Lance Armstrong’s doctor and he found a cure for testicular cancer. So, I was already interested in oncology and became even more interested when I was exposed to these people who are smart and leaders in their field.”
She received her internal medicine training at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. After completing her residency, Desai moved to Stuart in 1999 where she practiced emergency and internal medicine before completing her medical oncology fellowship at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. She was surprised to discover how much she liked living in South Florida.
“I never realized Florida was an option until I moved here,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I think of this before?’ ” she said as she chuckled.
Today, Desai practices oncology with Florida Cancer Specialists in Stuart. She said the best part of her job is spending time with her patients. She enjoys hearing their life stories.
She also is working on an integrative medicine fellowship through the University of Arizona, led by internationally recognized leader Dr. Andrew Weil. Integrative medicine pairs traditional or Western medicine with alternative treatments to care for the mind, body and spirit. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of all appropriate therapies. Desai is studying this field because she believes in treating the whole patient and not just the disease.
“My interest is mainly in the mind-body-spirit connection and whatever issues people are bringing in and making them sick,” she said. “I think it has a role to play in our health and wellness. These are things that people have used across over the world for thousands of years, and they have worked.”
The limitations of Western medicine have inspired Desai to incorporate this type of medicine into her practice to help treat her patients.
“I believe in what I do, but a lot of times we don’t have the tools for dealing with certain things,” she said. “Like chronic pain, we really don’t have a lot of good choices. We give out pills and that’s it. I think some of the Eastern philosophies — they have other modalities — other herbs, and they tend to work.”
When Desai is not tending to patients, she enjoys curling up with a book, walking on the beach, spending time with family and friends and relaxing at home with her two dogs, Cyndi and Adam. Her patients have taught her a lot about living and re-prioritizing what is important. She applies those lessons to her daily life.
“I try to stay centered and in the moment, so I can enjoy life fully and completely,” she said. “When I feel unbalanced, to get back on track, I remind myself that I don’t want to have any regrets at the end. That’s what keeps me balanced.”
Lives in: Stuart
Occupation: Oncologist/Hematologist at Florida Cancer Specialists
Education: Studied biomedical engineering at Northwestern University; graduated from Indiana University Medical School and finished her residency in internal medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis; completed an oncology fellowship at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa; and is working on an integrative medicine fellowship with the University of Arizona
Hobbies: Reading, walking, biking, traveling
Who/What inspires me: “As far as a public figure — who I have a lot of respect for and who I would like to meet would be Oprah Winfrey. What she has been doing to use her platform to raise humanity’s consciousness and open everyone’s minds is amazing and remarkable. She’s talking about mind-body-spirit connections and it’s not hush-hush. She’s a believer in that, too.”
Who/What inspires me: “On a daily basis — I would like to say everyone in their own little way. When I see the struggles that everyone has — whether they’re a patient or someone I personally know — when you see them going through, conquering it or working their way through it — that is remarkable and inspiring.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “My love for McDonalds. I like Big Macs or cheeseburgers and you can ask them to add lettuce for 25 cents.”