James D’Silva’s life has come full circle.
When he lost his mom to cancer at age 16, D’Silva ’99 lost his compass. A lot has happened in the 20 years since then.
Today, at 35, D’Silva is standing tall as the chief hematology/oncology fellow at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. And he shows no sign of letting up.
It was a hard road to get where D’Silva is today, but that makes his victories that much sweeter. As a teenager, D’Silva dreamed of being a musician. He played guitar in a band, hoping it would lead him to his destiny. It didn’t.
Life caught up with him his freshman year of college. As he finally began to process the pain of his mother’s passing, D’Silva took time off from college. He got a job as a dialysis technician – and he found his purpose.
“I would sit and talk with the patients and try to give as much of myself as possible,” D’Silva says. “I found that whatever I would give to the patients, I got back 20 times as much. At that point, I knew I wanted to go into medicine.”
But D’Silva wasn’t a shoo- in for becoming a doctor, at least in his own mind. He saw himself as a mediocre student, mediocre at everything, really. “I didn’t know whether I could do it,” he says.
His father and brother Oliver ’97 are both physicians. And while he lacked confidence in himself, the rest of his family saw D’Silva’s potential. He applied to medical school and was accepted. “I felt I’d overcome something to get there, and it made the accomplishment of getting into medical school a very special thing,” D’Silva says.
When his mother was diagnosed with bile duct cancer when he was in eighth grade, D’Silva had no way of knowing that he would treat cancer patients someday. But during his fourth year of medical school, D’Silva did a rotation in hematology/oncology, and it directed his course.
“It was the first time I worked with cancer patients,” he says. “When I did it, I felt such an incredible connection. It felt different.”
As a hematology/oncology fellow at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel today, D’Silva has “incredibly rewarding days” and “incredibly difficult days” as he treats patients with Stage Four cancer. When communicating with them, he draws on his own personal experience and that of his father. It helps D’Silva as he communicates with kids and spouses of cancer patients.
“My mother instilled in us that you want to help alleviate the suffering of those with the most need,” D’Silva recalls. “She’d say, ‘There are people who suffer for no good reason, and if we can help in any way we should.’ Getting used to people dying as a regular part of my life, trying to alleviate their suffering and helping them make decisions they feel comfortable with, that’s what it’s all about for me.”
As a physician, do you see similarities between yourself and your father? My dad is a nephrologist, a kidney doctor. His passion for his patients was always very apparent. To see how hard and tirelessly he works is inspiring to me. He and my brother never take days off and I try to give as much as they do and so many others in medicine.
What else inspires you?
Seeing the strength that I see in so many of my patients, that’s absolutely inspiring. You see how they bear the cards they’ve been dealt with such grace. My mom did that. She suffered quite a bit, but the way she handled all of that was an inspiration. And all the professionals I work with and those that do it with energy and love, that’s incredibly inspiring.
Do you miss music at all?
I live in New York, so I get to listen to some of the best music and jazz here. You pick a path and you go down it. You don’t look back.
Your identity today seems closely tied to your profession. What can you say about that?
I feel very dedicated and married to my job, but at this point, if this is my life, I think what a wonderful life it’s been. You will find nothing more rewarding in your whole life.
What have you learned about yourself?
When we try to see the best in people and help those in need, we bring out the best in ourselves and can accomplish things we never thought possible.