Prisca Patrick learned to walk well before her first birthday. But at 11 months, she started falling down. Her parents took her to see several different doctors, but no one seemed too concerned about the clumsy toddler.
Finally, her brother’s pediatrician conducted two simple tests: He watched the little girl try to walk a straight line, and he put his ear to the right side of her head and tapped her skull. His diagnosis was as immediate as it was terrifying: the toddler either had meningitis or a brain tumor was growing inside her tiny head. The emergency room doctor confirmed the tumor.
“My parents held it together,” says Patrick, a senior business major who will graduate in May. “My dad is the type who’s not always going to express his feelings. My mom is always on top on things and does what needs to get done.”
For Patrick, surviving childhood cancer – and later the loss of her big brother to a drunk driver – has fueled her ambition to commit her life to service. At 23, Patrick has launched her own nonprofit, Purpose for Life, which raises awareness and support for the two causes that have shaped her life. Thanks to her professors in the College of Business, Patrick is set to graduate on May 4 with her business plan and the ability to put her experiences into action.
“I am known mostly for my work with childhood cancer. That is the No.1 cause I am an advocate for because most people don’t know that childhood cancer is the leading cause of death in children,” Patrick says. “I am also very passionate about drunk driving. It’s plain and simple to me. Don’t drink and drive.”
After her freshman year, Patrick started working with children with cancer at Camp Smile-A-Mile, the Alabama camp she started attending at age 3. The camp offers much the same as other children’s camps – swimming, campfires and talent shows – while a pediatric oncology medical team tends to the children’s health needs.
The camp holds a weekly candlelight service for campers who have passed away. The service gives the children space to express their feelings about their friends who have died.
“One girl who was 9 or 10 got up and talked about a friend who had just passed away,” Patrick recalls. “The girl said, ‘Tucker said he was tired. He knew angels were coming down.’ The other counselors and I realized we sounded like that when we were younger. Those are the strongest kids I’ve ever known.”
Patrick is one of those strong kids. She underwent her first surgery to remove her tumor at 15 months. At age 2, she had three tumors removed from her spinal cord. She’s had at least five brain surgeries because of her cancer and its after effects, which includes a chronic condition called hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. She’s had two surgeries to implant a shunt in her head to drain the buildup of fluid around her brain. Because of her condition, she has to sleep upright on a stack of pillows, and she’s had to avoid cheerleading and gymnastics because of the risk of falling.
“I still did ballet, basketball, soccer and softball because I was stubborn,” Patrick says.
Patrick’s mother, Etoile Patrick, says being reminded of the meaning of her daughter’s name pulled her through the toughest times.
“Prisca means ‘old lady,’ and her middle name, Naomi, means ‘pleasant, delightful,’ ” Patrick recalls. “I thought no matter what bad news I heard, her name is a promise. She’s going to live to be a pleasant, delightful old lady.”
And there was plenty of bad news. Doctors told Patrick and her husband that Prisca would likely live only five months, and if she survived, she would have brain damage. The same week Prisca’s doctors found three new tumors growing on her spine, her mother learned she was pregnant. The pregnancy was difficult, and while Patrick feared for her daughter’s life, she also feared she’d lose her unborn baby And she still had to care for her 3-year-old son, John Michael.
Despite her complications, she gave birth to a healthy boy, Nicolas, now 20.
“Nicolas went through this whole journey with Prisca,” says Patrick, who had to bring her new baby along to Prisca’s weekly chemotherapy sessions.
The Patricks also taught their daughter that she should never limit herself.
“We told her she could do anything she wants to do. She should go on every trip she could go on,” Patrick says. “We always encouraged her to not lean back on her disability, but use it in a positive way.”
Though she’s faced ongoing health challenges, Prisca Patrick has led a pretty normal life. Still, her cancer treatments have left her with low bone density and a constant ringing in her ear. She suffers from short-term memory loss, chronic migraines and vision problems. Patrick says the most difficult episode of her medical treatment was when she had to shave part of her head in the eighth grade because of one of her surgeries.
“That was my hair!” Patrick says. “I was mad.”
This survivor and her family were dealt another devastating, and permanent, blow when Patrick’s eldest brother, John Michael, was killed with his girlfriend by a drunk driver on U.S. 49 outside of Clinton, Miss.
Patrick was 17, and her brother was 19. He was studying at Hinds Community College and had earned a full ride to attend the University of Mississippi.
“John Michael and my mother were both at Hinds when he was killed,” says Patrick, whose mother was studying to become a Registered Nurse. “He was supposed to graduate May 2007. He was killed the semester before. During my mom’s graduation, she received his diploma and hers.
“It was a dark time. I was depressed. I hung out with the wrong people; I did whatever I could to not be around the house.”
It was during that dark time that Patrick made the decision to attend Jackson State, though she didn’t have a strong family connection to the school. Her father, a minister, was a Mississippi Valley State University graduate, and her mother graduated from Millsaps College.
“At that point, I didn’t want any more change. Changed scared me,” says Patrick, who was accepted to Mississippi State University’s Day One Leadership Program for high achievers. “But I wanted to be close to home. Then I got invited to be part of JSU’s Honors College.”
At JSU, Patrick has found opportunities to serve the causes she cares about most. She recruited JSU students to her Relay for Life team for the American Cancer Society, created a bumper sticker that raised $700 for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and raised $600 for Camp Smile-A-Mile during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. She credits her boyfriend, senior graphic design major Cedric Colston, with helping her focus on her goals.
“I like the fact that I can raise money for other organizations while starting my own,” she says. “With my organization I want to be able to raise money and then be able to give a scholarship or two for volunteerism. That’s what got me where I am today.”
Patrick also has thrived academically. She’s earned good grades and took part in JSU’s study abroad programs, traveling to China for an alternative fall break and spending her last semester honing her Spanish in Nicaragua.
“I don’t think if I would have been anywhere else, I wouldn’t have gotten the experience I needed,” Patrick says of her time at JSU. “Everything happens for a reason.”