For Alpana Garg, MD, clinical assistant professor in General Internal Medicine, it all began with a medical school graduation announcement. As a high school student living in Chandigarh, India, Garg saw the photo of the Government Medical College’s graduating class in the newspaper every year. As she began to consider her own career options, she started picturing herself in that graduation cap. With lots of competition and no physicians in her family to guide her, she knew that diploma would not come easily. Yet, that graduation photo reminded her of the possibilities awaiting her. So, she began to study.
“I was a studious child,” Garg said. “I used to feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, other people are having fun, and I’m not having that much fun.’ But that was just how it was.”
After committing years of her adolescence to academics, she got into the Government Medical College. After medical school, Garg then completed an OB-GYN residency at one of India’s most prestigious institutions, the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research. But something about obstetrics was not right for Garg and she decided to pursue training in internal medicine.
After getting married, Garg and her husband moved to the United States, where she began an Internal Medicine residency at Wayne State University. Although she found herself in an entirely new country and a new residency program, internal medicine seemed to be a better fit.
“Given my nature, I like more of reading and studying, rather than surgical, which is required for OB-GYN,” Garg said. “In surgical branches, you have to really depend on other people to teach you. It’s skills-based. Since reading is my strength, I realized I was getting a second chance with my Internal Medicine residency.”
Garg is grateful for the experience she gained in OB-GYN training. She says that it taught her how to create strong connections with her patients, skills she still uses today with her internal medicine patients.
“I finished my residency, but learning does not stop. So that was my priority,” Garg said. When Garg joined the department in January, the new post-COVID care clinic was the perfect appointment. In addition to her primary care clinic at Iowa River Landing, Garg sees and treats patients dealing with post-acute sequelae from COVID-19 infection. A constant learner, Garg finds motivation in post-COVID-19’s many unanswered questions and the treatment possibilities. Even when there were bumps in the road, she said Wendy Fiordellisi, MD, MS, Clinical Director of the Iowa River Landing General Medicine Clinic, was there to help Garg acclimate to the new position.
“It is not easy to step into practice and see patients with a disease we are just learning to understand,” Fiordellisi said. “Dr. Garg has been a fantastic addition to our internal medicine team.”
Opportunities like working in the post COVID-care clinic made the University of Iowa Garg’s first choice, post-residency. Because of the integration of UI Health Care with the Carver College of Medicine, she can learn, teach, research, and treat patients using resources not readily available at other institutions.
Moving to a new state and institution during the pandemic presented their own challenges. Garg says she has never seen the faces of many of her colleagues or the nursing staff, and at times, it can feel isolating. Yet, she still feels welcomed by her new department.
“My colleagues here will see me now and then, and they will ask, ‘Are you having any problems? How is it going for you?’ I think just asking those things is important, and it’s nice,” Garg said.
Garg applies this positive outlook to a lot of the challenges she faces. Garg, her husband (a gastroenterologist in Cedar Rapids), and her 4-year-old daughter have been unable to explore the many gems of Iowa City; however, they spend lots of time watching movies and taking walks together around the Coralville Reservoir. Furthermore, Garg says the pandemic has allowed her time to focus more of her energy on research and to learn more about her own strengths.
“There is nothing else to do,” Garg said. “It’s better to do something. Like for example, if you publish research work, it kind of gives you happiness. So, I think that is becoming my distraction.”
Garg’s research aims to understand the long-term effects of COVID-19 on patients who have recovered from the disease. As one of the first clinics of its types in the area, providers are following more than 200 patients with so-called “long-haul COVID.” The team of ten physicians uses CT scans, blood tests, and pulmonary function tests to better understand and treat the infection’s effects. From there, the team may suggest physical therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and mental health treatment.
In the post-COVID-19 clinic, Garg works alongside Alejandro Comellas, MD, clinical professor in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Occupational Medicine. Comellas has witnessed first-hand Garg’s commitment to her patients.
“Since her arrival she has been leading many aspects of the post-COVID clinic including a new initiative to meet patients’ needs,” Comellas said. “Alpana also demonstrates a pursuit of scholarly work with a few manuscripts being prepared related to her experience in the clinic. On a daily basis, she continues to pursue excellence in her work and patient care.”
For Garg, her career in medicine is now much more than a picture in a newspaper. Each of her experiences has offered her a new lesson and improved her quality of care. “Every day, I meet a new person, and it’s wonderful,” Garg said. “In addition to getting to serve the noblest of professions, I get to hear the stories of my patients and, in the end, it is the patient who ends up teaching us so many things.”