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Precilla Veigas was more than halfway through her PhD in medical science when she got the grim diagnosis in September 2015.
A rare form of abdominal cancer had spread through her body. Doctors told her she had six months to live, a year if she was lucky.
Veigas had a teenaged daughter, a husband and a sprawling family in India. She was also engrossed in pursuing the academic goal she’d been dreaming of for most of her life.
Colleagues at the University of Toronto raised the possibility of medical leave.
“I said no, I’m not going to do that, I want to finish it,” recalls Veigas, 44, who says despite the shock, staying focused on her research made her feel clearer and stronger to deal with the medical nightmare that was about to unfold.
“Difficulties come in life, you can’t turn away from them. You have to face them.”
Over the next 20 months of hospital appointments, tests and scans, four different chemotherapy treatments, fatigue, pain, swelling and other disabling side effects, Veigas kept her eye on the academic target.
On Tuesday, six weeks after Veigas successfully defended her PhD dissertation, U of T is holding a first event of its kind — a special convocation for her in advance of the usual June celebrations to mark her achievement.
With her prognosis still uncertain, the school wants to make sure she gets to walk across the stage and receive her doctorate in front of family, friends and colleagues eager to celebrate.
“I’m so nervous and excited at the same time,” says Veigas, who acknowledges that being called “Dr. Veigas” will be a high point, even though “I’m still Precilla.”
“I’ve always had very strong support,” Veigas said in an interview Sunday at her Aurora home, where excited family from Toronto, India and the U.S. were congregating, including a six-month-old babbling happily in the background.
On her worst days, Veigas had warned her 15-year-old daughter Jadyn that she might have to collect the sealed parchment from U of T on her behalf.
“But she always said to me ‘No Mom, you are going to take it yourself,’ ” says Veigas. And that’s what she’ll do at Tuesday morning’s ceremony at Massey College held by the faculty of medicine and the school of graduate studies and attended by about 40 people.
“I’m so proud of my mom,” says Jadyn, a Grade 10 student who wants to study pharmacology and follow in her mother’s footsteps as a researcher.
“I know it’s a sad thing. But we didn’t even know if she was going to finish. I’m super proud.”
Veigas’ research resulted in guidelines that are already helping trauma physicians at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto treat patients who are hemorrhaging, by matching them to the most effective blood products for transfusion to manage bleeding and save their lives.
She successfully defended her dissertation on March 31 in a session that her supervisor, Dr. Sandro Rizoli, described as “spectacular.”
To do it she took a break from chemotherapy to build up stamina for the two-hour-plus ordeal in front of a panel that included a trauma expert who flew in from the University of British Columbia.
“She’s just a regular person, but then when you look at her decision, and her resilience and accomplishments, you say wow,” says Rizoli, professor of surgery and critical care medicine and chief of trauma care at St. Mike’s who met Veigas seven or eight years ago when she was managing a massive research study at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
“What she did is incredible, to get her PhD in spite of all the challenges she faced.”
Veigas says her drive goes back to her childhood in the town of Karkala in southern India, where she remembers being fascinated with small animals, birds and plants. She’d spend hours planting seeds and stem clippings and digging them back up to see if they’d sprouted roots before replanting them.
She was the sixth of seven children in a “small but happy” house with no money for frills. Both parents worked at government jobs and drilled the importance of education into their kids.
“Education can take you places, and it’s an asset no one can take away from you,” she remembers them saying. All her siblings went on to attain post-secondary degrees and beyond.
Tragedy struck when she was 11 and her father died of a sudden hemorrhage. It’s a loss that haunts her when she thinks of her own daughter.
Veigas earned her bachelor of science followed by a Master’s degree in medical microbiology. After she and her husband Joseph D’Souza married, they moved to Dubai, where he worked in information technology and in 2001 she gave birth to Jadyn back home in India.
When they immigrated to Canada, she planned to pursue a PhD right away. What she didn’t expect were the many hurdles — the lack of funding for research positions, and the fact she would need more certifications to crack the clinical research field.
“I was devastated,” she says. But not dissuaded.
She began her 11-year quest for a doctorate with two demanding clinical research programs in 2006 and 2007 — one part-time at McMaster University in Hamilton, which involved a three-hour commute on transit several times a week from their North York home, and another full-time at Humber College.
That earned Veigas the credentials to soon get a job managing the project that would eventually lay the foundations for her PhD. The clinical trial involved 75 hospitals and required collecting data about life-and-death trauma in patients who were bleeding out. It was meticulous work that required delicacy because of the many ethical considerations involved with patients who couldn’t give consent ahead of time, says Rizoli.
When she approached him in 2012 to ask if he would supervise her PhD, he had seen enough to know she was committed, did “superb work” and had what it takes, even though it was unusual for him to take on a candidate who wasn’t a medical doctor.
The pains started more than two years later, first in her shoulder, followed by fatigue. The doctor recommended exercises. It took months to finally get the scans and tests that led to her diagnosis of bile duct cancer and news that the five-year survival rate was 2 per cent.
“I’ve slipped through the cracks many times,” she says.
Surgery wasn’t an option because the cancer was too advanced. She opted for chemotherapy to shrink the tumours.
By early 2016, the disease had moved into her ovaries and abdominal lining, causing pain and severe swelling. She had surgery, then was referred to a different hospital where the diagnosis was altered, and the appendix was identified as the source of the cancer. Treatment changed, but the outlook was still dire.
In December she was told for the second time she could expect to live six months. “This is my second expiry date,” she says. “I have a sense of humour.”
She gets scared, sheds tears, but never in front of her family, she says, even though they are what keeps her going.
She loves hearing the details of Jadyn’s courses and volunteer stints. Her daughter does her makeup and helped input data into the computer for her thesis.
D’Souza says his wife’s determination gave her positive energy.
“I said you focus on that and I’ll take care of the rest,” he says. “This is what she’s achieved, that’s what she wanted.”
After convocation, Veigas has a few plans. There’s a third paper to publish from her thesis. It’s been a year since she and Jadyn went spur of the moment to India, and she wants to go again, to see her 80-year-old mother and other relatives that regularly send messages of support and encouragement. “We are a one-of-a-kind family,” she says.
She wants to continue to support the research at St. Mike’s however she can.
And to see her daughter graduate.
She will cherish that parchment in her hand on Tuesday, but doesn’t want it to be what defines her.
The most important things you leave behind are memories and relationships with the people you love, she says.
“Love makes a big difference.”