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PhD grad overcomes COVID, cancer diagnosis while earning degree

Shanna Doucet smiles at the camera wearing her doctoral graduation cap and gown

Shanna Doucet

December 05, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

There were many times during Shanna Doucet’s pursuit of a PhD that she could have given up, but she persevered with the support of her family, faith and program advisors.

“I look back and I can’t believe it, but I’m glad that I’m still here and I was able to finish,” she said.

The long road to graduation started in the fall of 2016, when Doucet called up Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Professor Felipe Castro to learn more about the college’s PhD program. After discussing requirements, commitments and logistics, she was ready to move forward.

“Dr. Castro has been instrumental in my success at ASU given that I’m a remote student. He’s really the lifeline to the school as far as if I had questions, and was very supportive in my personal and professional decision-making,” said Doucet.

At the time, she was working as the director for the Center for Innovation at Harris Health, a county health system in Houston, Texas. 

The first couple of years in the program got off to a solid start. It was decided that Doucet’s doctoral work would focus on a diabetes prevention program. Then, COVID-19 made its way to the states. In 2020, Doucet got a grim case of the virus.

“I had severe bilateral pneumonia and, at that point, they wanted to place me on a ventilator, and as a nurse, I was adamant that I didn’t need the ventilator. Fortunately, I was able to maintain on oxygen and heal over time,” she said.

After recovering and getting back on track, Doucet was approached with a promising career opportunity in 2022 that would allow her to have an impact in nursing transformation. She took the job and two months later was let go during company-wide layoffs.

Shortly after losing the new job she was so excited about, Doucet was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have multiple surgeries, including a double mastectomy. 

“God has a way of doing things because being relieved from that job gave me the gift of time to be able to just heal, go through the process of the cancer diagnosis and treatment.”

Her family was by her side, supporting her every step of the way and caring for her through it all. And so was her PhD committee from Arizona.

“My committee was amazing, Dr. (Rebecca) Lee called me multiple times just to do a mental health check, just a well-being check. So did Dr. Castro and Dr. (Julie) Fleury. And I think having school gave me something to look forward to — knowing that I was right there at the brink of graduating and I knew I only had a few more pages to write and I would be finished.”

So Doucet pushed on, telling her committee she wanted to graduate in December — and that’s exactly what she's doing.

Six and a half years, two serious health scares and one defended dissertation later, Doucet will cross the stage on Dec. 11 and graduate from the PhD program in nursing and healthcare innovation — and that’s not all.

“Because of the way I did my dissertation, I can publish all three of my chapters as manuscripts, and I’ll be the first author. In January, we will start submitting the manuscripts to three peer-reviewed journals. So I’ll walk away from this journey not only with my PhD but also as a published author.”

Below, Doucet talks about finding and pursuing her passion in health care and shares what’s next for her.

Note: Answers may have been edited lightly for length or clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Growing up, my mother was a nurse, and she encouraged me to pursue the profession. I started as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) to see if nursing was a good fit for me.

My "aha" moment occurred while working in the hospital. I felt gratitude and compassion while caring for my patients; in that moment, I realized that nursing was the right profession for me. I decided to continue to grow within the nursing profession. And although I took what I call the scenic route by acquiring my LPN, an (associate degree) in nursing, a bachelor's (degree) in nursing, a master's (degree) in business administration, and now a PhD in nursing and healthcare innovation, I have no regrets and I am grateful for my journey.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I was blessed with several amazing professors during my coursework at ASU. I asked the professors who had the most meaningful impact in my life to join me on my journey as a member of my committee. Dr. Rebecca E. Lee, Dr. Julie Fleury, and my chair Dr. Felipe Gonzalez Castro — I am honored that they agreed to be my mentors and academic advisors.

Throughout the years and my many hardships, my advisors became my rock and lifeline within the PhD program. They did everything from calling to check on my well-being to providing direction and their expertise. I consider them to be lifelong friends and mentors. I am grateful that they encouraged me to not give up and always pushed me to do my very best.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My advice to those who are still in school, especially those who have families and a full-time job, is to keep going. Even if it's one class a semester, don't stop. Life will always have some sort of obstacle; however, persistence always leads to perseverance. There were many times that I questioned myself, but I always went back to my "why." My husband, my children and my parents are all a part of my "why." They spoke life into me and (gave) me the strength needed to push forward. If you don't have a "why," establish one and lean into it whenever you are tired, overwhelmed or feeling discouraged. If you push forward, you will eventually meet your goals and finish strong.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have always had a passion for health care innovation and transformation. My research is centered around developing meaningful health prevention programs for at-risk communities. My plans are to build on the foundation I established throughout my nursing career and to utilize research principles to introduce new knowledge into the health care landscape to improve the health of communities with limited resources.

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