Rare disease no match for aspirant lawyer’s determination
The power of resilience was on display at the University of Fort Hare’s 2023 May Graduation this morning, when Siphamandla Boyce received his LLB degree – his second qualification from the institution – and the one that puts him within touching distance of his dream.
The Libode-born made headline news in 2021 for showing resilience in the face of serious adversities when he graduated with a UFH Bcom Law Degree despite battling major health setbacks caused by a rare neuro autoimmune disease.
This morning he left his hospital bed, where is undergoing different therapy treatments following another health setback, to walk accross the stage during the Faculty of Law graduation ceremony.
His agony started when he was in Grade 10 at Zingisa Comprehensive School in Mthatha, when his eyesight became so poor that he was unable to write his June exams.
While he had always been sickly, this was something new. Though he went back to school and performed well in the December exams, the temporary blindness would be the start of a horror journey as mysterious as it was painful.
After years of strokes, seizures, excruciating headaches and agonising limb pain, he was finally diagnosed with the rare autoimmune disorder, Behcet’s disease, in 2018.
But where lesser mortals might have given up, Siphamandla relentlessly pursued his goal of becoming a lawyer.
Even when his parents discouraged him, he continued his studies, re-enrolling time and time again despite the seriousness of his condition.
It was in 2017, the second year of his BCom Law studies, that the symptoms that had tormented in high school became a living nightmare.
At home in Libode for the December holidays, he woke up one morning to a headache such as he had never experienced. He was rushed to St Mary’s Hospital in Mthatha, where he vomited and suffered a seizure – the first of many.
A scan would show severe swelling on his brain.
“The doctor was not sure what it was. The only thing he could do was prescribe medication,” said Siphamandla.
He did not respond well but returned to Fort Hare for his second year regardless, thanks to his faculty manager Kunjuzwa Mkiva.
Sadly, his return would prove to be short-lived. Feeling immense fatigue and simply too tired to go to class, he was forced to de-register and spent most of that year “in and out of hospital, being diagnosed with meningitis over and over again” while suffering seizures and headaches.
“Around April, I had my first stroke. I woke up and couldn’t move my left arm and left leg. This happened three times in 2017.”
Desperate for answers, he secured a referral to see Dr Bhupendra Bhagwan – the same doctor who had assisted him with his eye problem in 2013.
At the start of 2018 he was admitted to Durban’s St Augustine’s Hospital for a biopsy on the ulcers in his mouth, but the mystery remained.
Yet even this was not enough to deter Siphamandla as he once again enrolled for the BCom programme with the help of Mkiva.
That June he started to experience severe pain in his knees and after a spell in East London’s Life Hospital, he again went to see Dr Bhagwan in Durban.
He was told that the only option was to perform a biopsy on his brain, even if this procedure was “dangerous”.
After the surgery, they had an answer – Behcet’s disease.
While there is no cure, it can be managed and ever since then Siphamandla has followed a strict regimen of “one pill in the morning and one at night”.
“In 2019, I had some room to breathe because I was receiving the right medication,” he said.
The following year, he completed his BCom against every odd imaginable.
“I wanted to be the youngest at whatever it is I chose to do, to have my life established at a very early age.
“My plan was to have my LLB at 22 but things didn’t quite work out that way.”
During the graduation ceremony, he got a special mention from the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sakhela Buhlungu and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching Learning, Prof Renuka Vithal asked him to stand as she related his story of sheer determination.