Tragedy threatened to derail Lisha Shakya-Lee’s dream of becoming a dentist—until her community at Tufts stepped up
One day in March 2019, Lisha Shakya-Lee, D20, woke up in the emergency room at Tufts Medical Center. A doctor told her she had passed out while getting coffee with a friend at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, where she was a student.
But Shakya-Lee hadn’t just passed out. She had had a seizure, the doctor told her—and an MRI scan had revealed she had a rare form of brain tumor. Although it was an indolent tumor—meaning it was slow-growing—if she didn’t have surgery as soon as possible, she could die.
When the meds and the shock wore off, Shakya-Lee didn’t quake or cry. Instead, she almost laughed. “I was like, ‘So is this what we’re doing now?’” Shakya-Lee said. “It actually felt so comical for me.”
It’s a surprising reaction—unless you know her story. Raised in Nepal, Shakya-Lee moved to Boston when she was 18, determined to get an education that could open doors. It was a struggle adapting to a new environment and culture, but while working at a dentist’s office, she was inspired by the specialists she supported every day—particularly the endodontists. “There’s an immediate result. You can instantly change your patients’ lives and relieve their pain,” Shakya-Lee said. “And I love to work with my hands.”
In early 2016, Shakya-Lee was overjoyed to be accepted to TUSDM and planned to specialize in endodontics, leaving a difficult marriage and divorce behind. But then, in March, her uncle died of a heart attack. Her family barely had time to mourn. The following month, Shakya-Lee’s father died, just as suddenly. Flying back home to Nepal for the forty-five-day mourning period observed in her family’s Buddhist tradition, Shakya-Lee found herself reeling, unable to understand why this had happened. Her joy and anticipation about dental school were gone. “My dad couldn’t see me graduate or even attend my white coat ceremony,” Shakya-Lee said, referring to the rite of passage where first-year students put on their white coats before friends and family. “I almost felt like there was no point in continuing.”
Robert Kasberg, associate dean of student affairs at TUSDM, urged her to delay starting school and take some time to process. The program would move fast, he warned, and she might not be able to catch up if she fell behind. But Shakya-Lee chose to forge ahead. “I thought to myself, I’m not going to stay home just to mourn and grieve,” she said.
Shakya-Lee was determined not just to pass, but to earn top grades and meet the rigorous requirements for an endodontics specialty. “I had this mentality where I always had to do extremely well. There was no time to catch my breath; I was always worried,” she said. “I was like, I need to get this degree because I came here when I was 18 and I’m starting from zero. I’m starting with nothing.”
The fact represented a gulf that Lee felt separated her from her cohort. “I had no home here,” she said. Even when she did become close with classmates, she figured they would be “dental school friends,” who wouldn’t stay in touch. “I just thought, everyone wants to get into the most competitive specialty. Everyone’s out for themselves,” Shakya-Lee said. “There are no friends here.”
Then, at the end of her second year, Shakya-Lee’s grandmother died, unexpectedly. She struggled with irrational feelings of anger—at her grandmother for dying during a time of such stress in her life, at everyone around her who didn’t have to deal with so much. “My body and mind were telling me, look at everyone having such a great life, and look at you,” Shakya-Lee said. As the school rolled out a new integrated curriculum the following year, including fewer breaks and exams every week, Shakya-Lee’s grades started to drop. “I was in such a state of panic and confusion,” she said. “I just thought wow, nothing could be worse than this.”
It was then that Shakya-Lee passed out in the coffee shop and was proven wrong. As she faced the decision of whether to have surgery to remove the brain tumor, she found herself again struggling with questions that had no answers. “I kept thinking, ‘What is going on? Why is this happening to me? Why me?’” Shakya-Lee said. “Every time I thought this was the end of the world, life kept hitting me with more and more, and finally all my ways of thinking about the world pretty much just collapsed. I thought I was born here on this earth just to struggle. I felt I could never find peace.”
But her musings were interrupted by one more unexpected event: flowers. Bouquet upon bouquet, from members of her cohort she considered friends, but also students she had never spoken with, and students who weren’t in her cohort; from her practice coordinators, other faculty members, administrators, and even patients. And with the flowers often came the people themselves, sitting by her bedside, encouraging her, and catching her up.
“I was always quiet and doing my own thing. I thought I was invisible, but people knew my name,” Lisha said. “These people I thought didn’t know me or even notice me were there in my hospital room.” Some of the cards she got included specific praise for her work in clinic. “People were really noticing my spirit and my soul,” Lisha said. “I thought wow, I must have had some impact.”
Shakya-Lee chose to have the surgery and completed chemotherapy and radiation. Concerned for her health and well-being, Dean Kasberg urged her to take a year off; once more, Shakya-Lee said she wanted to continue. He asked one question: “Can you do it?”
Shakya-Lee remembered the friends, fellow students, and faculty who had come to see her, whose floral expressions of support still surrounded her. “I thought, what am I scared of if everyone is willing to catch me if I fall?” she said.
She answered the question. “Dean Kasberg, I can.” She came back with a question of her own: “When do we start?”
Returning to school in July, Shakya-Lee was behind on clinic hours and had missed required workshops. Specializing in endodontics would now be out of the question. She had temporarily lost partial function in her right hand, making it more challenging to drill, and was still suffering from occasional seizures that could strike at any time.
But Shakya-Lee’s community at Tufts rose to the occasion. Friends and classmates filled her in on what she had missed and gave her cases that would help fulfill her requirements, rather than take those cases themselves. Faculty continuously checked on her, making sure she was feeling all right and offering their own offices to store her medications or take naps. Everyone around her received training on how to help if she had a seizure—which she now believes should be as widespread as CPR training.
By the time COVID-19 hit and the school closed, Shakya-Lee had regained her motor and sensory function in record time. Only the workshops Shakya-Lee had missed were still outstanding, and she was able to arrange to take them online. This past week, she successfully completed her final dental school practical examinations, and is both physically and professionally ready to launch her career as a dentist.
She said she’s grateful for her mother and sisters, who relocated to support her after her diagnosis, and for the unexpected gift the pandemic has given her. With businesses closed down and everyone social distancing, Shakya-Lee is practicing yoga, running, cooking, gardening, listening to guided meditations and classical Indian music, and doing something she hasn’t done in years: nothing.
“Right now, the quarantine has finally given me a much-needed break,” Shakya-Lee said. “I can sit home and reflect on everything that happened. And I’m realizing that it was really hard, and I am so proud of myself for pushing through. Through this struggle, I have found inner peace.”
Shakya-Lee will graduate on time with her classmates on May 17, but now that the moment is upon her, she doesn’t need it the way she once did. “I had this pressure to always be achieving, to prove myself. I kept thinking, I need to get that degree, and then I’ll finally feel at peace,” Shakya-Lee said. “But a degree can be taken away. Anything in the physical world can be taken away.”
What these past four years have given her, on the other hand, won’t be taken away, Shakya-Lee said. She’s not afraid the worst will happen, because the worst has happened, and it has only made her stronger. Tough questions no longer bother her, because she doesn’t need the answers right now—and when she does, she knows she won’t have to answer them alone.
“What I was chasing after was love all along. And I had to get sick to even understand how much love and support was out there in the universe, and right here in my school and city,” Shakya-Lee said. “I’m so grateful for these people, and so honored and lucky, because I know I have friends for life. I have a home.”