Do You Believe In Coincidences?

Jacinda Holtsmark, Class of 2018

Class of 2018 Alumni, Jacinda Holtsmark, doesn’t. She believes in miracles.

As a one-year-old infant, Jacinda underwent surgery by Professor Ralph Cohen to remove cancerous growths on her kidneys – saving her young life 20 years ago.

In August, Jacinda enjoyed a moment of serendipity when she found herself in a position to say thank you.

Jacinda, now studying a Bachelor of Science (Applied Medical Science) and Law at the University of Sydney, was attending an hour-long medical science lecture, presented by guest lecturer, Professor Cohen.

“I never would have imagined that when I logged onto my medical science class, that our guest lecturer would be the man that saved my life almost 20 years ago,” Jacinda says.

At first, she was rendered speechless, and recruited her parents to verify that he was the same surgeon; Jacinda recalls, “My parents recognised him and my dad said, ‘There is no way I can forget him’.”

In question time, Jacinda courageously revealed herself to the professor, adding that she “was just sitting there, crying and shaking, and wondering if I should say something!”

In a heartwarming story reported around the world, Jacinda is famously quoted, “I’m quite shocked right now, you were actually my surgeon in 2001 and operated on me for a bilateral Wilms tumour. This is insane that I’m now being taught by you; so, I just wanted to say thank you so much.”

Jacinda was delighted to thank one of her childhood heroes – “who saved my life” – in person.

The professor also authored a research paper on her condition, and later said, “Jacinda comes on to the [Zoom] lecture looking so fit and well, and what an amazing life she’s had.

Jacinda explains that in November of 2001, the “insanely talented and humble Professor Ralph Cohen performed a partial bilateral nephrectomy to remove two cancerous tumours on both my kidneys at Westmead Children’s Hospital.

“This pivotal moment in my life, which was followed by many more years of surgeries and appointments, is what inspired me to strive to become those very people who blessed me with a second chance at life.

“It sparked my passion to study medical science and volunteer at Make a Wish.

“Regrettably, we didn’t stay in contact with him. Yet, fate would have it that I would reconnect with him again!”

In the days following, as her story was shared, Jacinda was surprised on 2GB Drive radio with Jim Wilson, when the professor (pictured opposite) joined the broadcast admitting Jacinda’s revelation had left him speechless, too.

“She’s a 21-year-old girl, what she’s achieved and what she’s got ahead of her, I feel very privileged to have been a small part of having her grow into this wonderful person and have the opportunities that she’s going to have in her life,” Professor Cohen said.

“I feel very honoured and privileged to have had that opportunity. I will never forget that, and I thank her for having the courage to do it,” he told the listeners.

Professor Cohen says he is motivated by the motto of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he trained earlier in his career: “Care for what the child may become”.

This is true to what he said to Jacinda all these years later, that the main reason he does his work is the prospect of what his patients may become in the future.

“He is not doing what he does for himself, he is doing it for the children’s future, which I think is the most admirable quality,” she explains, determined to stay in touch as she develops her own career.

Jacinda was a distinguished achiever in her HSC, excelling in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics Extension 1, and English (Advanced). While there is no doubt that her personal drive and application to her studies while at Roseville College was pivotal to her results, Jacinda refuses to take all the credit.

“The nurturing and supportive environment that was curated by the amazing teachers at Roseville helped me develop my passion for not only science, but learning,” she says.

“I am forever grateful for the constant support the teachers at Roseville showed me – even when medical appointments and surgeries resulted in me missing large amounts of classes, they would go above and beyond to ensure that I did not fall behind.

“It was their selflessness and kindness that got me to where I am today, and I will forever be grateful for their help.”

Jacinda urges Roseville girls, no matter their circumstances or experiences, to “always be willing to show gratitude”.

“I am so extremely grateful this [reconnection with Professor Cohen] happened.

“I have been filled with so much happiness, thankfulness and gratitude since. I will never be able to articulate how grateful I am to him for giving me the opportunity to chase my passions. I’m so honoured to have been taught by him, and now be able to personally thank him. I’m in true awe of his candour and kindness.”

Jacinda admits that her lived experience inspired her to pursue medical research.

“Thank you Professor Cohen,” she says. “Growing up in hospital, I would say to my doctors, I want to be just like you.”

First published in The Rose Magazine, Semester 2, 2021.