Hilda De Gaetano: A Veteran Physician and Dedicated Educator who Leads with a Student Centric Approach

The Most Extraordinary Women Shattering the Glass Ceiling in Education

Meet Hilda De Gaetano, associate dean of preclinical education at Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. De Gaetano oversees the first 2 years of the curriculum. This encompasses overseeing schedule creation, course syllabi, examinations and anything that involves the preclinical curriculum. At the college, she is on multiple committees regarding policy and curriculum. She also attends to student issues in concert with her colleagues.

Much of her day is spent in meetings and dealing with issues as they arise. Dr. De Gaetano can be described as dedicated. She follows through and meets the requirements of her job regardless of the obstacles, time requirement, or her personal needs. She asserts, “I love my job and feel like it was created for me. I have been with the University for a long time and have been part of the positive changes and growth that our college has experienced. I would like to continue being part of this team and part of any positive changes to come.” 

Early Life and Journey to become a Physician

Dr. De Gaetano went to medical school in New York where she is from.  Her mother is a retired teacher, and her father is a retired physician. She feels this set the framework for her to be a physician in an academic setting. She states, “As a physician, you are educating your patients, so the two go hand in hand. Being in an academic environment also keeps you on your toes. You must keep informed about the latest breakthroughs in medicine so you can educate medical students and residents. The academic environment also forces you to review basic concepts so you can be a good educator.”

She married one of her medical school classmates, and right after graduation, they moved to Georgia for internship and residency where her husband was stationed as a military physician. She says, “After my husband’s commitment to the military ended, we moved to Fort Lauderdale, and both started working for KPCOM in 1999. At that time, our children were babies, so I worked part-time.” In 2017, Dr. De Gaetano completed her masters in medical education, earning the Chancellor’s award.

Significance of Small Accomplishments

“Success is the feeling of accomplishment,” says Dr. De Gaetano. She finds success in reaching any goal that she sets for herself. Her most ambitious goal was becoming a pediatrician. However, she always sets small achievable goals ranging from a few hours to read an article, to a few days for finishing a project. She says, “This sense of accomplishing a task, regardless of size, is what keeps me motivated. It is the thrill of overcoming the challenges that I set for myself that defines success.”  

Getting Strength from Challenges 

Dr. Gaetano states, “Challenges only make you better.” Her view on difficulties is that there is always a solution to a situation. Recalling a particular situation at the start of her professional journey, she remembered when a patient’s father did not want to listen to her plan of care because she was female. She further adds that the person sought advice from another physician in the practice and was surprised to hear that her plan was accurate.  This was very upsetting to her, as she had dedicated much of her life to this journey and based on the fact that she was a woman, he didn’t want to listen to her. She deems, “Challenges like this, make me feel even more confident. You study hard, have confidence in what you know, realize when you need to ask for assistance, and you will rise above.”  

From a Part Time Lecturer to Associate Dean

Dr. De Gaetano’s journey at the Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine started 22 years ago as an adjunct professor working a few hours a week. During that time, her children were babies, and this schedule was perfect for her. At the college, she taught in most of the non-lecture-based courses where students were divided into small groups. She also provided lectures to the class. Over the years, as opportunities came up, she advanced in her career starting as a clinical assistant professor working part-time to her current position as the associate dean of preclinical education for the Davie campus.

Adapting New Ways during Pandemic

The pandemic has changed the educational system all over the world. According to Dr. De Gaetano, due to the pandemic, the college’s curriculum delivery was affected and had to be moved off-campus within a very short period. During these challenging times, technology played a big role. She expresses that the students needed to continue without interruption in their education. At KPCOM, the educators created a support email for students since they were off campus. Classes were conducted virtually through the Zoom platform. In the beginning, lecture recordings from the previous year were used and new lectures were recorded as necessary. The student schedules were redone so they would have five pre-recorded lectures each day and the remaining time to study.

Discussion boards were added for all courses to aid in communication and testing continued with a familiar electronic testing modality. Proctoring was done using Zoom initially. The assessment technology tool that was utilized for exams came out with a new way for secure testing that did not require the use of proctors so they switched to that. She says, “Every step of the way we created and conducted training for both students and faculty where needed.” 

Achieving Work Life Balance by Being Attentive

For Dr. De Gaetano, balancing her personal and professional life wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be. She had a personal rule that she would never do work until after her children went to bed at night. When she was at home, all of her attention was on them.  She attended every school event and went on field trips with their classes. She says, “We would also bring our children to all of our out-of-town meetings; we didn’t travel without them. There would be plenty of time for that when they grew up. Now that they are adults and don’t live at home, I have no regrets.”

Dr. De Gaetano states, “My motivation is internal. It stems from overcoming challenges and reaching my goals. It is not driven by external rewards. The feeling of accomplishment is the reward.”