May 9 was a special day for Precilla Veigas. The 44-year-old was surrounded by family and friends at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and clutched in her hands was the PhD degree she had just been awarded. In her last days, the fulfillment of her childhood dream is a special milestone for Precilla.
Prescilla has terminal cancer – it originated in her bile duct and by the time it was diagnosed in the summer of 2015, it had already spread to her ovaries and liver. She was in the middle of her doctoral studies and it was too late to operate on her. By fall that year, she was told that she had only a few months to live.
So, when she completed her PhD despite the odds, the University of Toronto decided to have a private convocation for Precilla, to award her the degree.
“I’m on top of the world,” Precilla told Andrea Gordon for The Star, after the 25-minute ceremony. She also gave a five-minute speech, which left the 45 people – Precilla’s relatives, colleagues and friends – misty eyed.
“My oncologist told me that I had six months, and if I was lucky, I may have one year with chemotherapy. He advised me to go home and get my affairs in order,” Precilla said in her speech. “But I didn’t give up because I wanted to see my daughter grow up in front of me. She was only 14 when I was diagnosed,” she says in this video, posted on YouTube.
“I am proud to have achieved my dream, though I don’t dream too much about my tomorrow. I do hope to see my daughter graduate from the high school,” Precilla says in the speech.
Precilla also mentioned how she never cried in front of her family, even through the exhausting sessions of chemotherapy. However, the diagnosis was very hard on her. And it began only with shoulder pain which rendered her unable to drive. After a CT scan and biopsy, the cancer was confirmed. "I was so upset and I went alone to see the doctor and had no one around me," Precilla told Andrea Janus’ for CBC News.
When Precilla was told she had stage 4 cancer, she had completed 80% of her research. She was studying “clotting defects in people who have suffered severe injuries”.
Ultimately, Precilla decided not to give up. “I went through 20 gruelling months of fatigue, while continuing to publish papers and give presentations, even when it was painful to walk,” she wrote for Hindustan Times. “Now I fear I may not survive another four weeks to see my June convocation,” she added.
Precilla’s rigour and dedication to her work, has not gone unnoticed by her supervisors either. One of them, Dr Sandro Rizoli, called her work “magnificent” and said the Precilla was a “regular person” who performed extraordinarily “in the face of unsurmountable challenges.”
According to her doctoral supervisors, her research could change how doctors treated trauma patients in hospitals. In fact, Toronto’s St Michael’s Hospital has already adopted guidelines based on Precilla’s research which helps “match trauma patients to the most effective blood products to transfuse in order to manage bleeding and save their lives”.
Precilla's dream of pursuing a PhD in medicine took root very early on. Born in Belthangady, a small town in Karnataka, Precilla was the sixth of seven children who lived in a two-bedroom flat. Her parents were government employees. However, her father died when she was just 11 years old, leaving her mother to raise seven children on her own.
It was she who would tell Precilla, “If you study, it will take you places and it is the asset that no one can snatch from you,” inspiring her to pursue a doctorate.
But Precilla wasn’t able to do it immediately. Having moved to Dubai after her marriage in 1997, she was determined to become a medical researcher when they moved to Canada in 2005. After two courses in clinical research at McMaster University and Humber College, Precilla was ready and began pursuing her PhD.
Ultimately, Precilla hopes to leave behind a legacy for her 15-year-old daughter Jadyn and to inspire others to pursue their dreams. “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,” Precilla wrote.