A global pandemic has made every student’s path to graduation this year more difficult, but it was hardly the first obstacle in Philiz Goh’s long journey to convocation.
In 2015, she was working part-time as an oncology nurse at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and studying for a master’s of nursing in health systems leadership and administration at the University of Toronto when a collision on Highway 401 changed her life’s trajectory.
Driving near the Leslie Street exit on the way to a restaurant for lunch with her family, she felt a jolt as something slammed into the back of her blue Hyundai.
“I remember the sound of tires and then the crunching of metal and me screaming,” she says.
“And then darkness – black.”
Her memory is foggy but she remembers dialing 911 and leaving the crash site in a neck brace, lying flat on a backboard. The collision left her with soft-tissue injuries to her knee, shoulder, neck, back and right hip.
But the most serious problem was the invisible damage to her brain. She was often dizzy, unable to walk and suffered severe headaches, along with other debilitating symptoms. Specialists at Sunnybrook later diagnosed her with “mild traumatic brain injury.”
“I had all these plans and all of a sudden everything just kind of collapsed, and it was devastating,” Goh says.
Despite the challenges that lay ahead in her recovery, she was determined to get her life back on track and fulfil her goal of becoming a health-care leader to improve patient care.
One of the hurdles was to regain mobility. In physiotherapy, she completed a range of exercises, wiggling her toes, feeling the swing of her foot, pushing down through her heels to recover spatial awareness and movement. In her eagerness to get better, she overdid the exercises to the point of developing blisters and requiring hand braces.
She saw a long list of specialists: an audiologist (for sound sensitivity), a neuro optometrist and ophthalmologist (for dizziness, balance, double vision and focusing problems), a vestibular therapist (also for dizziness and balance) and a neuropsychiatrist (for injury-related depression, anxiety and PTSD).
Her friend Dorothy Lo was shocked to see the change in Goh soon after the crash. Lo, the head of the division of hematology and oncology at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and a staff medical oncologist, knew Goh from her residency at Sunnybrook. She found her friend moving with difficulty, wearing noise-cancelling headphones and earmuffs to block out sound and two pairs of sunglasses to filter out light.
Lo tried to lift Goh’s spirits by encouraging her to take up art again. The pair painted with acrylics on Goh’s dining table.
Although the crash took a toll on Goh’s faculties, it did not diminish her willpower or drive, according to Lo.
“Over the last four years, she was so determined about making a recovery and to share her story and motivate other people,” Lo says. “She always had it in her.”
About two-and-half years after the collision, Goh’s therapist asked if she would like to try going back to university to complete her degree. She didn’t need to think twice.
In the years since the crash, Goh’s ability to read – hampered by her injury – gradually improved through practice and the use of special reading techniques. In the early stages of her recovery, she read in the stop-start manner of a child, she says. “For example, if a sentence read: ‘The cat walked across the street,’ I would be like: ‘The cat. Walked across. The street.’”
But the academic writing she would be confronted with in her graduate-level nursing program was a different story – not to mention having to summarize articles in essay form.
That’s where U of T’s Irene Sullivan came in.
The neurological team lead at Accessibility Services on the St. George Campus, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years in hospitals and community agencies, met with Goh to address her unique learning needs.
“The paperwork that comes from a doctor [about an injury] can look identical, but the experience is entirely different for each person based on what they’re trying to do in their life,” Sullivan says, adding that, while a brain injury can be diagnosed as “mild,” its consequences can be serious and life-changing.
Sullivan helped Goh make arrangements with faculty and staff in her program, referred her to outside specialists and introduced her to an adaptive technologist and learning strategist in Accessibility Services. The technologist helped her get connected to an online tool that reads articles aloud while the learning strategist helped Goh break down academic readings and projects into more manageable parts.
“I took one course at a time. I was very slow,” Goh recalls. “But I was able to complete my master’s. In each course I was able to get 90s, which was fantastic, because I worked really hard.”
Amanda Loder, a PhD candidate in physical geography, met Goh in 2018 while they were both junior fellows at Massey College – three years after the crash. Goh spoke openly about the collision and its impact. “It’s horrifying to think about going from just being an academic or a master’s student and a nurse and then the next day physically not being able to do that,” Loder says.
“Something I found inspiring and really interesting: She genuinely wants to educate people on what it’s like living with a brain injury or having gone through something traumatic.”
Goh chaired Massey’s accessibility committee, gave talks about her experience and about accessibility spaces, and is writing a self-help book about her past with tips for people living with a brain injury.
As Goh’s graduation day approached, she received a congratulatory email from Sullivan at Accessibility Services. “I wish I could shake your hand,” the email said.
“We’re people who helped her along the way, but the work has all been hers,” Sullivan later told U of T News.
Goh and her family are planning a simple celebration for her convocation day this weekend. Surrounded by close relatives, she plans to watch U of T’s virtual fall convocation ceremony on her brother’s big screen TV.
But her journey is not over.
Having gone from wheelchair to walker and now to a cane, Goh is still very much in the process of recovery. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but, for now at least, she knows she can’t go back to seeing 150 patients a day as a nurse at Sunnybrook. So, she plans to continue advocating for patients and better accessibility.
“I’m just determined to do the best I can every day,” she says.
As for others whose path to a life goal has taken an unforeseen turn, Goh says not to lose hope.
“Don’t let that setback worry you or lose your focus or determination because it’s just a little blip in your life’s journey. Focus on your future and the rest of your life … This little blip is nothing.”