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.