Precilla (Veigas) Dsouza was awarded her PhD degree by the University of Toronto at a special convocation to recognise her work on saving the lives of trauma patients. She has cancer
I was born on July 13, 1972, the sixth child in my family. My parents, Urban Veigas and Eugene Madtha, lived in Belthangady, a small town in Karnataka, India. We were a lower-middle class family, and lived happily together in a two-bedroom home. My parents both worked for the government.
When I was five, we moved to Karkala, a green city known for its many temples and mosques and churches and lakes. I attended Jayanthi Nagara Government Elementary school until Grade 5, and then Christ the King elementary school for Grades 6 and 7. When I was in Grade 6, my father died of a haemorrhage. I witnessed him throwing up blood and he died within two days of falling ill. Overnight, my mom became a widow and had to raise all of us alone. Her hardships were even worse than mine!
I attended an all-girls high school and then went on to Sri Bhuvanendra College in Karkala where I completed my undergraduate degree in botany, zoology and chemistry, graduating with high distinction.
I then joined Manipal Academy of Higher Education, about 35 km from Karkala. It is one of the top private health institutes in India. In 1996, I completed my graduate degree in medical microbiology.
In 1997, I got married and moved to Dubai where my husband worked and lived. At the time, I had an opportunity to do PhD in tuberculosis research but I wasn’t able to return to India as I was newly married.
Instead, I got a job as a quality control technologist, as well as a lab technologist in a hospital.
Even though my husband was doing well in his career, I was not happy. I was haunted by a longing to fulfill my dream of doing a PhD. In 2003, two years after my daughter Jadyn was born, we applied to immigrate to Canada, the land of opportunity. We were fortunate that my husband got a job offer before we immigrated, so we were spared the problem of unemployment that so many new Canadians face. We arrived in North York in Toronto, in 2005. While we were waiting to receive our permanent residency, I was given permission to work under a pilot programme and got a job volunteering in a reputed hospital so I could gain Canadian experience, and hone my communications and people skills. I also got a volunteer role in a clinical research organisation. I was offered a full-time job, however I turned it down to pursue further education in clinical research.
I was fascinated by that field after reading a news clipping while travelling on the subway one day. I enrolled at both McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as at Humber College, in Toronto, to get two post-graduate certificates in clinical research. I travelled three hours both ways on public transit to attend classes, all while raising my young daughter.
I went on to become co-ordinator of a massive and groundbreaking clinical study involving more than 75 hospitals that required collecting data on cardiac arrest and trauma patients at risk of bleeding to death. The work I did was enough to convince Dr. Sandro Rizoli to take me on as a PhD candidate in 2012 at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Rizoli is chief of trauma care at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Studying for my PhD was a dream come true. My milestone was so close.
However, in 2015 I was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a cancer which soon spread to my ovaries, liver and lungs. I was given just six months to live.
With 80% of my PhD complete, I saw no option but to continue my studies. I refused to let life’s traumas throw me off course. In between exhausting bouts of chemotherapy, I carried on in the lab and library, never giving up. I went through 20 gruelling months of fatigue, while continuing to publish papers and give presentations, even when it was painful to walk.
Now I fear I may not survive another four weeks to see my June convocation.
I am so humbled and grateful that University of Toronto agreed to hold a special convocation on May 9 to recognise my achievement and award me my PhD.
Already, my work has led to guidelines at St. Mike’s (St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto) that help match trauma patients to the most effective blood products to transfuse in order to manage bleeding and save their lives.
I am so honoured that so many family members attended this week’s ceremony on campus, including some who flew over from India.
I am also so happy to leave a legacy for my daughter, Jadyn, to find the strength to achieve her own life goals. I hope I can inspire my fellow graduates to work hard, follow their dreams, and remember that life is short. In the end, all we have is one another. When you leave this life, your legacy is you as a person, the love you leave behind.
The author has done her PhD from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, Canada.