Clark Ward, newly appointed president of the three-year-old ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City, doesn't have to dig deep to empathize with the people who come to ProCure for cancer treatments. Ward, 60, said he felt many of the same emotions — including the fear of dying young — when he as, a 30-year-old senior surgical resident, had life-threatening surgery for what doctors initially suspected was esophageal cancer.
There was a 90 percent mortality rate associated with his rare condition — an abscess in his chest surrounding his esophagus, which led to crushing chest pain and the inability to swallow his own saliva, he said.
“I remember thinking ‘just get me out of this,'” Ward said. “I wanted to breathe fresh air, see my fiance — now my wife — again, and golf.”
After his survival, the would-be heart surgeon evaluated his life, and decided to switch to radiology, where he not only expected to enjoy more free time, but also to ride the exploding technology of ultrasound, CT (computer tomography) and angioplasty, which were just getting started.
After 25 years in radiology, most recently as chief of radiology at Deaconess Hospital, Ward has chosen to facilitate today's cutting edge technology: proton therapy. He joined ProCure in the spring of 2011 as senior vice president of physician and patient affairs, and became its chief executive late last month.
Opened in July 2009, ProCure recently completed treatment for its 800th patient; many come from different states and countries, though about 60 percent are Oklahomans. Unlike conventional radiation, proton therapy is targeted to tumors, so there are virtually no side effects because there is reduced risk of damage to surrounding healthy tissue, Ward said. The treatment, he said, is ideal for head and neck, lung and prostate cancers.
From his offices at 5901 W Memorial Road, Ward sat down with The Oklahoman on Wednesday to talk about his personal and professional life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: I was born in El Paso, Texas. But my dad was career Air Force (colonel), so I lived all over the world — Texas, Massachusetts, Alabama, Germany, England, Virginia. I went to a different school every year until the eighth and ninth grades. It seemed awful at the time. But in retrospect, it made it easy for me to move to different places and do different things. An elementary schoolteacher, my mom — after I was born — stayed home with me and my sister, who's 18 months younger. After we graduated high school, she earned her master's degree and worked as a high school guidance counselor.
Q: What were some of your memories of those early years abroad?
A: It was attending an all-male English private school for the fourth grade where I really learned how to study — taking Latin, French, theology, composition, religion and other subjects, each taught by a different male teacher. I rode the train to school; wore a uniform, tie and hat; and every night had to write an essay in ink, and start over if I crossed out anything. The only other American in the school was a senior head boy. It was clear I had to hold up my end of the stick for America.
For fifth through seventh grades, I attended three different schools in Germany, where we were stationed during the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK's assassination. During that tense time between the Western and communist worlds, my pee-wee baseball coach got close enough to the border of West Germany and East Germany that he was shot down by Russians. When President Kennedy — who'd I'd recently seen 20 feet away during his famous “I am a Berliner” speech — was shot, my mom was taking us by train to Paris when I heard the news on the one American station on my transistor radio. I told my mom what I'd heard and a nearby airman said “That's not funny, kid. Stop that.” I was 11.
Q: Any high school/college highlights?
A: We settled in Hampton, Va., for my high school years, and I played baseball, football (quarterback), and basketball. We were state champions in the latter two. I was awarded a full football scholarship to Duke, where I played defensive linebacker and pledged Kappa Sigma fraternity.
Q: When did you decide to pursue medicine?
A: I had twin uncles, on my dad's side, who were doctors — an oral surgeon and anesthesiologist — who influenced me. Since I was 5, I wanted to be like them; I thought they were cool. Like them, I attended medical school at Tulane University.
In fact from where I stayed, I could see their old room. Both my parents went to LSU (Louisiana State), where my dad played football. I loved living in New Orleans. Liz and I have been back frequently. I studied hard, but there was always something going on — from the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras to Jazz Fest or just the Cafe du Monde coffee shop in the French Quarter known for its French pastries.
Q: What brought you to Oklahoma?
A: My wife, Liz, is a Tulsa native. We'd always thought we wanted to live in a big city like Dallas or Atlanta. But after my radiology residency, we lived in Atlanta and couldn't stand the traffic. We moved to Oklahoma City in 1988, where we've lived ever since. Initially, I worked for Presbyterian Hospital and, after it became part of OU, bought my own imaging center.
Q: How'd you meet Liz?
A: During med school at Tulane. We went on a double blind date, arranged by her Phi Mu sorority sister, to a Tulane-Mississippi football game — the first college game played at the Super Bowl — and she was with the other guy, who was also a med student. In pursuit of her English degree at Newcomb-Tulane College, she was taking a classical music course, which I'd recently taken at Duke. So I asked her to the symphony that next weekend. We've had season tickets to the symphony ever since.
Q: What's next for ProCure? Since treatment spares normal tissues and alleviates many complications, why aren't all cancers being treated with proton therapy?
A: Money and politics. Treatment is up to 35 percent more expensive than traditional radiation. But we're working across the industry to bring down the costs, so cost isn't a barrier. Currently, proton therapy is a huge treatment for pediatric patients and persons with prostate, head and neck, liver and other cancers. And there's trending now toward treating ladies with left-sided breast cancer because doctors are finding traditional radiation can adversely affect the heart field and lead to coronary artery and valve disease. Likewise, proton therapy, in brain cancers, can spare damage to critical structures like the pituitary gland and optic nerve.