After years of heartache, loss and setbacks, Taiyyibah Irfan’s dream of being a pharmacist is now a reality, and today – on International Women’s Day – she is hoping her story will inspire others.
Taiyyibah started her Pharmacy degree at the University of Sunderland in 2013 but didn’t graduate until seven years later, as she coped with the death of her dad and cared for her sick mum.
“I forged my career out of sheer determination,” she said.
“There were mountains to climb at every point and so many hurdles I had to overcome to get where I wanted to be.”
Taiyyibah, from Gateshead, became her mum’s carer at the age of seven after she became ill. Her dad was still living in Pakistan despite numerous Visa applications to join his family were rejected by immigration officials.
Taiyyibah was starting her A-levels as her mum was having treatment, and as her parents remained separated, she had to look after her little brother too.
This had a big impact on her exams and Taiyyibah failed to get the grades she needed to study the Pharmacy degree she always wanted.
As she was about to begin a teaching degree in Bradford, a call came though from Sunderland that a place was available on the Biopharmaceutical Science with Integrated Foundation Year, which would lead to the Pharmacy degree (MPharm).
Taiyyibah sailed through the course and went on to complete the first year of the degree.
But by second year, her mum’s health took a turn for the worst, resulting in countless hospital appointments, scans and tests. Taiyyibah ended up having to re-sit the entire second year in 2015-2016.
One of her crucial exams also had to be retaken and she became an external student for the year 2016-2017.
Unfortunately, more family heartache was to follow.
Taiyyibah’s dad suffered a sudden heart attack in September 2016 and needed an urgent triple bypass.
The family flew out to Pakistan overnight and stayed there for four months where Taiyyibah cared for both her parents.
Taiyyibah returned to the UK with her mum and brother in January 2017 after her dad was well enough to do most of his own personal tasks.
However, a couple of months later, his health unexpectedly deteriorated, developing peripheral vascular disease, which progressed very rapidly causing reduced circulation to both his legs and feet below the knee. He lost all mobility and had to use a wheel-chair.
Shortly after this news he suffered three strokes in a space of two weeks.
Finally, a CT scan discovered a clot in his heart which had fragmented and had spread through his body.
Within weeks he passed away because of a pulmonary embolism. He was just 43-years-old.
Still mourning her dad, Taiyyibah threw herself back into studying and began her third year in 2017.
However, the pressure became too much and Taiyyibah failed her exams following a panic attack.
“When I opened the paper, I just completely panicked, she said.
“I just got so overwhelmed and all of the emotion just washed over me. I just sat there and stared at it blankly for an hour and half and wrote gibberish down.
“When I left the exam hall I went into the toilets and just broke down crying,
“I just lost all motivation. I didn’t want to go back to university, I didn’t want to study. I just thought, what is the point?
“I was so, so sad that it took me days to actually get back out of bed.
“After that, it took me ages to build myself back up and my family and cousins had to really push me and make me go back to university.
“I decided to sit that exam again and I finally passed.”
Today, it is a very different story for Taiyyibah.
The 28-year-old is now a full-time pre-registration pharmacist at Lobley Hill Pharmacy in Gateshead.
Taiyyibah is hitting the books once again, though. She is sitting her pre-registration exam in June to become a qualified registered pharmacist.
“It’s been a very eventful year because of Covid-19,” she said.
“There have been some big curve balls thrown in and it’s been an interesting experience in community pharmacy because we’ve had to take on so much.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’m just hoping I can pass the pre-registration exam, become a pharmacist and give back to the community.”
In 2019, Taiyyibah’s selfless and giving spirit impressed lecturers so much that she was awarded the Jemma O’Sullivan Award for Care and Compassion in the Practice of Pharmacy.
The award is presented each year to a Sunderland student who has demonstrated these qualities during their degree course.
Pharmacy student Jemma O’Sullivan was just 22 when she was killed in a motorway crash 10 years ago. As a lasting legacy Jemma’s parents, Vincent and Margaret, sponsor this special award to a graduating student.
“There is going to be times in your degree or in your life when you’ll feel like you can’t go on and you can’t get out of bed,” Taiyyibah said.
“After dad’s death and after everything that happened, when I failed that exam, it was just like breaking point. I couldn’t will myself to go back to university and do the degree. I wanted to give up and not do anything. But after getting help from my family and friends it lifted me back up and I managed to succeed.
“You have to remember what your end goal is, what you want to achieve and where you want to be, and that is what you need to remember to motivate you all the time.
“Self-doubt is just going to swallow you whole, but you should never allow yourself to feel like that. Now that I have completed my degree and I’m currently doing my pre-registration year I feel like I’ve achieved so much and I’m in such a better place. Having that success has made me feel so much more confident in myself.
“If you give yourself that motivation and optimism, you’ll be able to do it as well. Don’t let negativity pull you down because you will achieve and you will be successful.”