Introducing to you, a mother, a wife, a daughter, Sr. Clinical Project Assistant, and a survivor, Keisha Mathew.
Growing up in Ohio, young Keisha was the enforcer. She was articulate and clear on her life’s direction, partly. As she progressed in life, her path became clear and her focus sharp. During university, Chemistry gave her a hard time, yet she was no quitter. From choosing her career to choosing her life partner, Keisha had all sorted. With a growing family, and advancing career, and wonderful life, she was getting established in life. What could go wrong now!
In life, nothing stays as we plan. There comes a time we face trials, hard as they can be. Even when the pain was unbearable, she fought through it and proved that she was not a quitter. This devastating turn in her life has made her stronger. Yes, this setback was painful, and it for sure gave her time to discover more about herself. Keisha is on a journey to finding herself.
After a few years of battle, Keisha was back at work and was hoping for a career improvement that got stalled due to her illness. The good news is she will be starting a new position as the Clinical Research Study Management Associate where she will be running sponsored clinical trials. Life is incredibly amazing.
Sharing her unbelievable story of survival, triumphs, and trials and the everyday battle for endurance. We are in conversation with Keisha Mathew from Houston, Texas.
A conversation with Chippy & Keisha Mathew,
Sr. Clinical Project Assistant, Texas, United States of America.
|CKC———–||Keisha, How are you? What have you been upto?|
|KM||I am doing well. Thankful. It has been an eventful few years and Covid has given me a little bit of time to reflect on myself. When you said why you are doing this project and about your intent to uplift people and to help when people are stuck, I feel that. I am currently in that boat right now. I Hope that something new and more fulfilling will come along.|
|CKC||Hope is what drives us. How was life during Covid?|
|KM||It’s like, trying to put a fire out and everywhere it starts. You are holding the extinguisher and trying to fight the fire around you. But no one is putting the fire out on me. Challenging times. I had to perform at 100% all the time in too many roles at one time.|
|CKC||Are you not able to find a space for yourself?|
|KM||I just don’t have time for myself which is sad. I guess, after work, household chores, caring for the family, and tucking my kids into bed, I am exhausted. I definitely could find time for myself but I fear that it would just become another task for the day, and not something energising or fulfilling. |
I have a routine but when I am out of my routine, I don’t know what to do with myself. That’s actually my “me” time, but I don’t know how to just focus on me. I talk to my mom often and I will tell her, ‘I am bored, I don’t have anything to do.’ She will tell me, ‘you need to find a hobby.’ That’s true, ‘I need to find a hobby.’
|CKC||What is your favorite pastime?|
|KM||My life is surrounded by work, taking care of the kids, spending time with Rohit, my husband, taking care of the house, and being in touch with our families. Right now although I have a whole lot of friends and am friendly and I meet people everywhere I go, I don’t have hobbies. |
Growing up I was into books. I used to read a lot. I know I should just do it. Lately, I have been reading for a little bit. Just random things, articles mainly. Then I started getting into audio books. The only reason to shift to audio books was to have something on when I was working. But did I really enjoy the book? ‘No’. It felt more like a chore. Also I was part of a book club a few years back. Maybe I should just join once again. At least it will get me to read again.
The fact is I found it very difficult after becoming a mother and with my illness to find out exactly what it is that I like doing for myself, what it is that I want, and want to be. I am in search of that drive or motivation.
|CKC||Before we delve into your life, tell me who Keisha is today?|
|KM||Personally, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter and a survivor. Professionally, I am the Sr. Clinical Project Assistant for a Pharmaceutical Company just promoted as the Study Management Associate . I am one among the thousands in my company who helps build an impact on people’s lives across several key therapeutic areas. We discover and deliver innovative medicines that solve serious health issues. I am proud of what we do.|
|CKC||At work who are you?|
|KM||At work, I am the doer. My mom had this motto, ‘if you got to get something done right, you got to do it yourself.’ And I believe it too. That’s why I say I am a doer.|
What I do basically is help the clinical teams get trials started at investigative sites like hospitals, private practices, and so on. The team manages the study and I provide support to the sites to start the study at their location. Eventually, this support will lead to a marketable drug or device, and even a treatment or cure for a health issue. In the end, I am giving them the drugs, or for better wording, investigative products to start the clinical trials. I feel like I am doing all the work, asking all the questions, and even to the point of thinking for other people. The latter is one of many pet-peeves of mine.
|CKC||Who was Keisha when she was younger?|
|KM||Bossy. I am the oldest out of my siblings and of the cousins from my mother’s side. I was always kind of put into the enforcer role, making sure that others don’t get out of line and if they do tell on them. My siblings and cousins called me the second mom. I hated that term, but I lived up to it.|
|CKC||Responsible at a very young age. What did you want to be when you were younger?|
|KM||When I was my daughter Eliza’s age I wanted to be a doctor, an artist and a ballerina.|
|CKC||Wow… That’s very specific.|
|KM||Yes, yet Ballerina was never going to happen because I never took classes. I realised I could not really draw, so being an artist was out of the picture. So I was wishing to be a doctor, so all my academics were steered towards that.|
|CKC———–||How did things pan out after school?|
|SM||At 18, in High School I got accepted to an Apprenticeship at Wright State University. This program was based on science, engineering and math. We were paired with Professors of the University specifically towards “our” interests. |
Who knows at 18 exactly what they want to be, right? Well, during the introduction for this program I was listening to the different professors discuss their research projects with their potential apprentices. Upon hearing a specific one about genetics, that project gave me a clear idea of what I wanted to do in life at that time. I requested to be paired with Professor Dan Krane who was a Geneticist and also a Forensic Scientist. The interesting fact at this stage was that he brought back a memory that was not an important memory to me, but it triggered an experience I had as a pre-teen.
|CKC||Not an important memory but significant.|
|SM||Yes. When I was twelve, there was this big case about this football player, O.J. Simpson. The case was a national headline. I remember being in 6th grade and in class we all were glued to the television. It was literally the case that stopped the nation. Just to watch the verdict. We were 12 years old, and we don’t know this person at all. All we see is a black football player and knew nothing of him up until what he was accused of doing, which was murdering two individuals. I remember, everything stopped for the day, traffic was stopped, the whole nation was in front of the TV, waiting for the verdict. That was impactful. He was found not guilty, and there was a sigh of relief from my teachers. I guess to my teachers, he was their hero growing up. |
Going back to the apprenticeship, I got to work under the doctor that worked on that trial. He was the one to help get O.J. acquitted. That intrigued me, so I worked under this doctor’s supervision, and I picked up what he was doing.
|CKC||What did you work on during this apprenticeship?|
|KM||My project was identifying the genes of an oak tree from Germany. Why was this specific tree important? Well, when Jesse Owen, the black track star that made history after he destroyed the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Olympics, he brought home four gold medals, and four oak saplings originating from Germany. It is believed he planted one in his mother’s yard in Cleveland, the second one at his old high school, the third stands on All-American Road at The Ohio State University(OSU), and the last one died. |
Our project was to do a genetic analysis of the tree that was planted on OSU’s campus. Even though our results were inconclusive, I had so much fun during this time. Apart from that I loved what I did and gained new understanding on the subject that I decided genetics and forensic studies were what I wanted to do.
|CKC||So did you apply to Ohio State University?|
|KM||Yes. I applied. During Freshman year of college, I took biology. This was my first class dissecting any animals and I had to dissect fetal pig, my stomach turned. I couldn’t do it. So I was certain Forensic Science is not what I wanted. That’s when my path was clear and I was sure I wanted to do genetics.|
There were hiccups along the way. Many times, I thought maybe I should quit. I was having trouble with chemistry. It was very hard to put those abstract thoughts together. So I thought maybe I should major in English. I loved literature. I loved reading. I would read all the time when I was younger. I would just write because people wanted me to and whatever they wanted me to write, I wrote. People would say to me, you write eloquently. And in college I used to make some money writing papers. It was a nice trait, but not a desire.
I was on the verge of quitting, then the right person came along to set me straight. I found an academic advisor who was actually helpful. She pushed me and asked to join the Genetics Club at the university and that not only helped, it changed me. Finding all these resources actually helped me get over the bump with chemistry and other classes. And I finally graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Genetics in 2007.
|CKC||Five years in OSU and what’s up next?|
|KM||I felt burned out so I was not applying to grad school. Even though at the back of my mind I felt it was a mistake. And I don’t know if I would have succeeded then or if it would have been better for me. I don’t know. I decided to start applying for the workforce.|
|CKC||Job hunt, how did that go? Was it difficult to find a job?|
|KM||After my graduation it was about 10 months before I found a job that I could apply my degree towards. When I started searching for employment, the United States was going through the worst economic recession. I even applied to retail jobs to at least pay off the student loan debts. These jobs were not paying enough. |
However, there were people who were able to find jobs right after college; they were smart and started looking earlier, most likely like a year in advance or so. But I was busy and focussed on trying to graduate, so that was a factor why it was a delay for me to find a real position. It didn’t stop me from applying though and I ended up getting called for interviews and finally started working as a Lab Technician in a small biotech firm.
|CKC||How was your first stint?|
|KM||The job itself wasn’t hard. It was the manager. It was very difficult navigating personalities there, mainly hers. Micromanaging and the attitude of my boss did not set me well there. It was the first time in my life I wanted to quit, and this was just being on the job for two weeks. See, I’m not a quitter, but this place, I just felt defeated all the time. At first I thought it was me, I said to myself, ‘I am doing everything right.’ I began to spiral into some type of depression. Losing weight. Experiencing hair loss. I weighed as much as my 12 year old sister at the time, and I was 24 at the time. Luckily, another person joined and they also found it was hard to work in this hostile work culture. It was eye-opening and clear that the problem was not me. It was a Red Flag and time to find something else soon.|
|CKC||You commenced looking for a new position.|
|KM||I ended applying and found an opening back at OSU. I even took a lower pay, just to get out of my previous spot. I, honestly, don’t even know how I survived there. It was a learning experience to grow from though. I ended up taking the offer from OSU, and worked under a Radiology Professor for a few years. Then I decided to move into a different lab, and after that my aunt who is a Clinical Research Associate, aka a Monitor for a Clinical Research Organisation was trying to pull me over to her field. So I decided that’s where I wanted to transition towards. I did not want to work in the lab anymore. I wanted to get into Clinical Research. In the lab I was putting my genetics education to somewhat use, it just felt very monotonous. I was there for over 3 year and now I needed a change.|
|CKC||Change means growth and for that you will have to start the process again. The hunt is on.|
|KM||Oh yeah! I later was able to find a position in the Clinical Trials office (CTO) at OSU, doing data entry. I was transcribing medical records into electronic databases for Sponsors that were funding clinical trials for some of the most serious cases of cancer. It was kind of boring, the typing part, but the interesting thing is that you on a daily basis meet medical patients through their data. I read their records and their treatment plans, and as part of clinical trials, you find out how they feel, what’s going on, do they think this drug is helping, and somehow you connect with them without ever meeting them face-to-face. I transcribed for a lot of oncology studies. I saw how many cycles of chemo the patients underwent, connected with them. Then one day as I enter the records, I see the patient passed away and/or the disease progressed. I hated the data entry part, but reading records made me want more of this connection. |
In the CTO, I made lots of connections with the visiting monitors who come to check on trials. One day I asked them, ‘how can I get into pharmaceuticals?’ That was my turning point, when a monitor decided she would mentor me into getting into her field.
I started applying again. This time, a recruiter called and we had a good conversation and an interview date was set for the following week. I rocked that interview. I got the call from the recruiter on the same day, ’they want to hire you.’ I was overwhelmed and he said, ‘there is only one problem, they want you to move to Chicago.’
|CKC||You are an Ohioan. It’s a big shift.|
|KM||Yes. Now I was only married for a year. Rohit & I had a chat and we decided we will take a leap of faith. We called our parents and told them and they were like, ‘take it’, and I know my parents were sad to see me go. But they were happy for me. I have been at my present company ever since. Even though the contract was with an external company, I got into a full time position less than 5 months within my current company. Coming in, I soaked everything up like a sponge. I was doing good work. I was loving my job, making a new life in a new state, had my first baby girl, Eliza, life was just getting exciting. I got pregnant with my boy, Eli, two years later. At that point things were accelerating, I was growing both personally and professionally.|
|KM||But then everything went spiralling down, out of control. While pregnant with Eli, I was feeling extremely tired and in a lot of pain. Unusual pain that differed from when I was pregnant with Eliza. I remember before I went on maternity leave, my coworkers and good friends at work would see me and they were like, ‘Keisha, you should go home. Why are you coming in? Why are you here?’ They were concerned. Apparently, I didn’t look too good to them either.|
One, I had to come in because I had to work, and two, I thought it was normal because of the pregnancy. I told myself and everyone, I am fine and at that point I couldn’t even walk, I was wobbly, and once I remember my colleague pushed me in the rolling chair down for office meeting. She told me, ‘you need to go home’. I keep insisting, ‘It’s just pregnancy. This pregnancy is different.’ It was nothing like my first pregnancy. Eliza’s pregnancy was easy, and I kept saying, ‘it’s just because he is a boy’ and I thought as well.
I didn’t know what was in store for me.
|CKC||What’s going on?|
|SM||Around Christmas, things started getting worse. I started getting pain in my legs and back. I was in pain. Constant pain all the time. Rohit and I decided to go with his parents to Kerala, South India in January. Thinking the weather would be good for the pregnancy. During that trip, one memory I have was that I could not put Eliza’s hair in a ponytail. My hands were hurting and so swollen. It was difficult to move or breathe. |
And it was when I delivered Eli that my disease manifested itself.
|CKC||What was the diagnosis?|
|KM||Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). It was hard, man. A chronic, autoimmune disease with no cure. You can control it with medication, but it will not go away. It sort of changed my life from here on.|
|CKC||I don’t know what to ask now.|
|KM||It was hard. Especially the first months of that year. When Rohit, Eliza and I returned back to the states from our trip to Kerala, it was a revolving door, in and out of the hospital for pain, complications of not breathing, and trying to figure out what is going on in my body. |
Then it happens. A young mother, delivering her baby 8 weeks before the due date. Honestly, the doctor saved Eli’s life and my life. I had to have an emergency c-section, and then 4 days later, I received news that I needed heart surgery because fluid was surrounding my heart sac. All on top of knowing my baby is in NICU. Talk about devastation. I cried upon receiving the news in my mother-in-law’s arms. Then the next 2 hours, I’m under anaesthesia and in the OR.
I still didn’t have an exact diagnosis. So I was told, it’s RA, rheumatoid arthritis.
After weeks in the hospital , I came home, but not with my little guy. He’s still fighting to thrive in the NICU. Trying to stay hopeful because I have Eliza and Rohit to still love and prayers for Eli to give so we can be together. Fast forward to Easter Sunday, this was supposed to be one of the happiest days for our family. We get to bring Eli home from the hospital. Though that didn’t happen. Instead, I get readmitted to the hospital for double pleurisy.
I couldn’t breathe. I had a fever, and I’m literally losing it at the hospital from crying to cursing at the nurses to give me something for the pain. After what seemed like hours, my pcp, rheumatologist, and cardiologist, told me that I’ve had multiple organ involvement among other criteria being met, for SLE aka lupus.
My heart sank and then they told me I had to start chemotherapy that day. As the radiology assistants/nurses began to insert my PICC line in my arm, I sobbed the entire time. I cried so much, they thought they were hurting me. I reassured them that I wasn’t feeling any pain from their operation, but just to hear this news and to start chemo was painful enough. The male assistant held my hand tightly, and tried his best to relieve me of this burden.
After my first weeks of weekly chemo, I was overwhelmed with pain. ‘I am in pain 24/7. I am having a hard time breathing’. The only relief I felt was sleeping. I woke up looking forward to going back to sleep.
I felt so bad for Rohit because he was trying to be my rock, caretaker, provider for me and manage Eliza. Maybe after several days, Eli was able to come home. During this time I knew I was depressed and I would tell my mom,’I don’t want to wake up’. Like ever. The pain was hard and newly living with lupus was just harder.
|CKC||I have no words. That must have been very hard.|
|KM||Yeah! It took a long time to be hopeful. My family helped and were supportive, they rallied around, they helped. Amma, my mother-in-law, was amazing during this time.|
|CKC||How are you now?|
|KM||I am not a spring chicken anymore. I am stable. My doctors are keeping me healthy and medication keeps me moving. My kids move me forward. In the morning there is this stiffness, I don’t really focus on it now. I am busy with kids, getting them ready, to school and daycare, I work and my mind is always elsewhere. I don’t really have body self awareness, unless it’s excruciating pain, but for now I just keep it moving. |
I am seeing a rheumatologist and as I am at the higher end of my medication, it’s been keeping me stable. Maybe we will taper it down. If this was a year ago I would say, ‘A DEFINITE NO.’ Now if you ask me, I don’t know, we will see. I don’t want to rush into it. Hopefully maybe within the year maybe I will be ready to taper it down.
|CKC||How did your employer support you during this time?|
|KM||They were extremely supportive and very accommodating. They kept my spot until I had to go on long-term disability. Lupus is unpredictable and the doctors did not feel comfortable releasing me after all the hospitalisations after the chemo treatment happened. When I first was ill, it was during my maternity leave for Eli’s delivery. Then I was sick again and was not able to return to work, then they had to hire a new person for my spot as I had to go on long term disability. |
That was hurtful only because it was saying goodbye forever. I had to send Rohit to clean my desk. Usually meant, that person is not coming back to the office. I understand, they had to fill that position and they cannot just leave it. Even though I was hoping and praying, I can come back soon and when I get better hopefully they will have my spot still. That was sad, having to let go, and not knowing if ever I will be able to come back or work again.
All these happened, not on my terms but on my body terms. It’s a constant battle I have on a daily basis while dealing with this illness.
|CKC||Once you got all clear from your docs, that means you will have to apply for jobs again.|
|SM||Yup. Once the doctors finally released me to work again, I began applying. I had a couple of interviews. One interview with a competitor specifically went well. There was a person I knew who could vouch for what good worker I was and I was about to transition into a project management role where I would be running the trial. This has been on my goal list for a few years before my illness took a toll on me. Unfortunately, I had to back down because of my illness again. That was heartbreaking. |
Once I got stable again, I started applying again and also applied within my old company and I got lucky and was offered a new position with a much better prospect for growth. I went back, it’s a new role but similar task.
|CKC||Are you still based in Chicago? Plans to head back to Ohio?|
|KM||I am now based in Houston, Texas. We moved from Chicago over this summer.|
|CKC||It was only a five hour drive to Ohio. Houston is a long way from home. What prompted the move?|
|KM||The move to Texas was really simply because we got tired of the cold weather and being cooped up in our townhome in Chicago due to the pandemic. When we tried looking for a home big enough, with a backyard, two office spaces, or at least 5 bedrooms, it was difficult and pricey. Houston wasn’t even on our list to move to. It was really Dallas or Austin, but nothing panned out. It just so happened that my brother-in-law and his wife talked us into considering it.|
|CKC||You are back at work now?|
|KM||Yes. Working 100% remotely. When I was offered the new position it was partially remote, and I only had to go to the office twice a week. Once Covid became a pandemic, it was imperative that I stay remote. I am on Immunosuppressants, which makes me more at risk, so I put in a request to my manager, and told her ‘I am not able to come into the office’. With my illness, simple things like people sneezing or coughing put my health at risk and build my anxiety in the office. She said ‘I could go remote’, and offered me to go remote fully. I would probably have waited longer to go remote if Covid never happened, but it worked out well for me and us as a family.|
|CKC||You have been in your company for the last 6 years. You had to slow down due to your illness, I am sure there is room for progress.|
|KM||Yes. I want to be the one managing the trials one day. The goal was always to progress in that direction when I started. I am thankful that I am able to come to work now. When I got sick, I was not even able to tell if I was going to come back to work. I was planning for the worst and thought it would probably be a while before I could get back into work.|
|CKC||Aspiration for the future?|
|KM||Career-wise, I still WANT to run Clinical Research trials. Prior to this move, I had a little bit of motivation in myself. I have been reading Jack Canfields, Success Principles. Some of the things I read in the book gave me more to think about and find myself again. |
The book says, to be flourishing, you have to take 100% accountability for everything you undergo in your life. It says, “what I think, say, and do is required to become intentional and aligned with my purpose, my values, and my aims. And to achieve aspired results, one must substitute complaining with making requests and taking action.“
I have decided to improve myself and put all those thoughts to action, setting goals for myself and my career. I am working to get out of my bubble and start networking more. As I am looking for progression, I need help, support and guidance. I also realised that I needed a Mentor and I cannot do this alone.
I have made friends wherever I go. During the course of the last fourteen years in my career and life, I have befriended so many people, and in some of the studies I have worked on in the past, I have befriended many Project Managers.
I found a mentor that I have worked with in the past. She was my first Project manager on a trail I worked on. I know how she works and she is consistent and thorough. I heard other project managers refer to her as the Study Guru. I recently asked her to be my mentor. She has been helping me. There was a position opened within her department. So I applied.
Just to get that interview and to get a do over I was happy.
|CKC||So did you get the position?|
|KM||I got the offer to now become a Study Management Associate. I finally have been given the opportunity to manage a trial. I’m ecstatic.|
|CKC||This is brilliant. You deserve it. And what are your personal aspirations?|
|KM||I want to have more kids. But my doctors and mostly everyone, especially Rohit, advises me not to as it’s a risk. I have to come to terms with it and take care of myself. Also, I have to find a hobby.|
|CKC||How do you balance work and family?|
|KM||That’s a good question. Career wise you have to create that balance, and keep that balance. Period. Although at times, when I try to give myself a hard stop, it eases and spills over. This makes it harder for myself in the evening and the next day. So sometimes I end up working overtime which cuts into my life. I am working on making the balance right. If you find someone with the master plan for this, please send me their contact info.|
|CKC———–||I sure will. You had an intercultural marriage.|
|KM||Yes. South Asian American and Black American. Rohit and I have known each other since 2003. It’s 17 years now. We started dating in 2006. For my parents it was about ‘is his heart in the right place for me,’ and why is he taking so long to propose? After six years he proposed and we got married in 2013. After eight years, we are blessed with two kids and have two wonderful families. It’s been a long journey. |
I have to say I lived with my in-laws, Amma and Appa for three months. During that time Amma taught me how to make Chai, Kerala Fish Fry, Vegetable Thooran. Eliza loves South Indian food. Eli only likes chicken wings. So dinner was always ‘what am I going to cook?’ especially since Rohit only liked South Indian food. Living with Amma I finally learned how to cook Rohit’s favourites. Even learned how to make Pappadam. It only took five years.
|CKC||You have visited South India.|
|KM||I love going to Kerala. My first visit in 2014 was memorable. Even with the second with all those difficulties with my pregnancy, my time in Kerala was joyful. I love the food and I felt I belonged. It was amazing.|
|CKC||Final question. What would you tell an 18 year old Keisha?|
|KM||It’s really hard. I would tell her to explore more. Maybe tell her to explore a different major career wise. Ask her to go into Journalism. Urge her to find more about her family history and keep a record of that. You think you are invincible. I will also tell her to be hopeful.|
|CKC||Thank you for sharing your life so far with us. I know it was not easy but I am glad you chose to be open. There are so many out there searching for that one story of endurance and survival, a story where someone who has gone through tests like yourself. Through all these trials of life, Keisha you have come out brighter and I am sure soon you will running your own clinical trials. I wish only the best for you. Always.|
|SM||Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my triumphs and trials. It’s been an honor to be one of the requested interviewees. I hope that your platform brings motivation to and uplifts others to be the best versions of themselves and to stay positive in the midst of adversity. Thank you again!|
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