BY JASON LEVY
PROSPECT — When Riley Clark arrived at the University of Maine campus as a freshman, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his future.
The three-time Naugatuck Valley League diving champion from Woodland High had three majors during his first three semesters. His mother described him as extremely smart, but lazy when it came to school work.
It wasn’t until his battle with Stage 4 testicular cancer that Clark, 21, figured out what he wanted to do with his life. He is now pursuing a degree in kinesiology and physical education with a minor in premedical studies. Following graduation, he plans to apply to physician’s assistant school with the goal of becoming a P.A. in a pediatric oncology ward.
Clark said his mom told him he would make a great nurse or doctor, but he didn’t think he had the grades to do so. Being in the hospital for nine months changed his outlook.
“I saw the effect that the nurses had. I saw the effect the doctors and the P.A.’s had on the (patients). I felt it myself,” he said. “It is a little corny and cliched, but I always believe everything happens for a reason. I truly believe I got sick to be shown where I am supposed to be in life. So after I got sick, I knew where I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be in that hospital, and I am supposed to be in an oncology ward. I love kids, and I want to help kids that went through exactly what I did. If I can’t cure them, at least I can put a smile on their faces.”
Even while Clark was going through chemotherapy, he was eager to put a smile on the face of everyone he met.
He was 19 while going through treatments, but his mother, Michelle, thought it would have been better for him to be placed in the pediatric ward. Whenever a new patient came in for treatment, Riley was disappointed when he found out they were older.
When the holidays rolled around, Riley made sure everyone had the Christmas spirit. He dressed up in various costumes, including as Buddy from the movie “Elf” and in the bunny costume young Ralphie was forced to wear in “A Christmas Story” — or just by wrapping Christmas lights around himself.
“That is what he feeds off of,” Michelle said. “If he can make someone else happy and smiling and brighten their day, he totally thrives on that.”
Philann Dixon, Riley’s best friend, who recently graduated from Maine after majoring in nursing, is confident her friend will excel in the medical field.
“Just to know he is going to do that for the rest of his life, it is perfect for him,” she said. “He was born to do that. He is going to do so well.”
Michelle started to see the wheels turning in Riley’s head while he was going through chemotherapy, one time asking why the hospital didn’t have people coming around to talk to everyone receiving chemo.
“He just had so many ideas. It absolutely started pushing him,” Michelle said. “I kind of joked with him in a way that it took him to have cancer and go through what he went through to figure out where he wanted to go in life. And he agreed.”
BY JASON LEVY