Love and Truth: UF Alum Who Conquered Cancer During Grad School Returns Home
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The assignment was to present the signs and symptoms of a serious systemic physical ailment that can initially appear to be a minor isolated health issue. By the time Boyd Davis III had concluded his presentation, half the class was crying.
“I presented it like I was a patient and they had to figure it out,” as was required of each student, said Davis, who earned his Master of Physical Therapy degree from The University of Findlay in 2010 (the last year a PT master’s degree could be earned at UF; a doctor’s degree is still offered). But his presentation was different in that he didn’t simply pose as a patient – he was one.
“At the end of the presentation, you told what the diagnosis really was. And I showed my CAT scan…” the 32-year-old remembered.
Davis recently sat down in the UFTV studio with Humans of Findlay creator Dave Morrow, a friend of his, to speak about his life for an hour-long YouTube video, which can be accessed here.
The Findlay native’s experiences and personality have persuaded him to live an emotionally wide-open life. Now a physical therapist at Bridge Home Health & Hospice in Findlay, he will just as easily talk about what it was like to lose every hair on his body as he will about his fondness for the mountains that surround Tucson, Arizona, where he and his family recently lived.
Davis is a survivor of Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in bone or soft tissue and typically afflicts teenagers and young adults. During his three and a half years enrolled in UF’s Physical Therapy Program, he spent the vast majority of his time shuttling to and from the Cleveland Clinic for treatment.
Becoming a physical therapist, he said, is not something that is accomplished online, nor, of course, is fighting cancer. PT requires practitioners to have a very manual skill set, and Davis was enduring 40 hours of chemotherapy every other week. The faculty gave him no preferential treatment, and at one point admitted to him that they didn’t think he could academically succeed. Davis’ response was to write an emphatic letter and speak with professors to convince them otherwise. He told them he welcomed the challenge, and that he wasn’t willing to be sidelined. On his chemo days, he studied lecture notes from classmates. To help with physical stamina, he exercised when he could.
The avalanche of support he received from other students and faculty members also helped. They called, brought him food, visited him during treatment and emailed. It lightened his burden, he noted. “That’s The University of Findlay. That’s the people they take,” Davis said.
Davis said he’s always had an inherent drive to succeed. When he decided to become a physical therapist, it was shortly after he earned his bachelor’s degree in teaching, he said. To get into UF’s graduate program, he immersed himself in coursework at community college, which involved taking 20 credit hours of classes day and night during one semester, and 18 the second. He introduced himself to UF’s College of Health Professions dean and showed up in person monthly to ask about how his application was progressing.
Instead of being resentful about the doubts that faculty expressed about him, he continues to profusely thank those who held him to the same academically rigorous standards as his classmates. Davis said his “best teacher” was the one who pushed him and the class the hardest – Lucinda Bouillon, PT, Ph.D., who now teaches at the University of Toledo. “That was the most brutal course, gross anatomy, that I’ve ever taken,” he noted. “She really made you think more functional versus what’s this muscle and what does it do. She really challenged me, challenged all of us.”
Not long after he began graduate school, it was clear to many that Davis was sick, but most didn’t know the specifics until he finally talked about them during class with his diagnosis assignment. His symptoms began, he said, with back pain during workouts. He was misdiagnosed for months before the right cause was eventually determined.
“I didn’t have fear because I felt like I lived a very full life,” Davis told Morrow. “In high school I was lucky enough to be on the same team as Ben Roethlisberger, and I thought that was really neat. I got to be in show choir and perform for thousands of people in St. Louis and Orlando, Florida. We traveled the country. It was amazing. My parents were able to take us around the world, to Germany, Europe, Mexico. So I felt like at 24, if that was the time to go, I was totally cool with it,” he admitted.
The thoughts of potentially not graduating, or not becoming a husband and father, bothered him, though. “People may take those things for granted,” he said. “I could see that I would if everything was good and you’re just coasting through life, and that’s the next stage. But I thought, ‘Wow, those are some important parts of your life that you may not get to experience.’”
Ultimately, he did walk across the stage at commencement, and that same year he married Kellyn Briggs, whom he met while earning his PT degree. She initially watched his struggles from afar, he said. They now have two sons, 3-year-old Boyd Davis IV, and 8-month-old Briggs Corbin Davis.
“Whew. Pretty incredible woman,” Davis said of his wife. “What a woman to say, ‘I’m going to get in this, I’m going to invest myself in this life of cancer, in this life of being a mom.”
Parenthood, Davis said, has provided him with an entirely different perspective on life, as have his experiences with his parents. Not long before his own health odyssey, Boyd and Brenda Davis were diagnosed with lung and breast cancer respectively, on the same day, no less. In his mom he observes an emotional rock, a take-charge caregiver who planned for appointments and surgeries with inspiring optimism. Davis said he approaches his own life, with all of its downs and ups, in that manner.
As a patient, “the hard part is watching everybody else be sad,” Davis said.
Bouillon, Davis’ former professor, said she still thinks of Davis often, particularly regarding his commitment to sticking with an academic program that is difficult for anyone to succeed in, let alone someone who is contending with a life-threatening illness. “I recall being impressed by his dedication to academics despite so much going on in his life,” she maintained. “So many other people would have become frustrated with the diagnosis or quit, and these options would certainly be understandable. Boyd was just the opposite. He was thinking about the future, both professionally and personally, and had such a positive attitude throughout the process.” She added that he “never complained or vented as to ‘why me,’ but instead focused on taking care of his health, being a good son, working on classwork assignments, and having a great attitude, all of which was in his control.”
“Personally, Boyd is a reminder that in life we face challenges that may seem overwhelming, however, half the battle is owning a healthy mindset,” Bouillon pointed out. “Boyd’s positive attitude has resulted in him living his dream and he is so deserving of that and more.”
As a physical therapist, Davis is able to empathize in ways that make him a kind and understanding practitioner without compromising the goals set for those he serves. The care, particularly for the elderly and those in hospice, must be nuanced enough so that a client’s voice can still be heard over the din of prescribed duties, he believes.
“There is a dynamic. You have family members saying, ‘Mom, you’ve got to eat, Mom you’ve got to walk, do this, do that.’ Maybe mom doesn’t want to. Who’s in control here? And you have to empower them still,” said Davis. “Even though they may have Alzheimer’s or dementia, you still want to give them the ability to make choices. Having my experiences have hopefully shaped me to be a good clinician, a good friend, a good father, a good husband.”
Davis and his family had a good life in Arizona. He had risen to the position of home health director, and the couple had formed solid friendships. But he said a “strong feeling” came over him to come home. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” he told Morrow.
Now back in clinical care, he’s also working on launching his own business with a former UF classmate of his, Nathan Patton. The two would like to work with Parkinson’s patients, for which they are certified.
Davis considers himself lucky, particularly given the family he has and the people he has met throughout his life. “There’s a connection there, and that connection is love and truth. I think that is truly the core of the relationships I’ve had with people,” he maintained. “I think a big part of that, though, is being receptive to that. I’m an open book, as you can see. I can tell you how it is and I can tell you how I feel. And maybe me being me allows people to come in and tell their story…”