Beating cancer puts youngster in league of his own

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 28, 2003

When the Ironton Little League selected its minor league all-star team, Clay Walker wasn't among those chosen few. But it didn't matter. He was already on a team all to himself.

Clay, who turns 9 years old in August, has experienced more drama in his life than most people will in a lifetime. Clay battled cancer in his left eye and won.

The diagnosis and surgery that led to the removal of Clay's left eye became a whirlwind affair. The entire process lasted one week.

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A little more than a year ago, Clay got a eye check-up by Mary Ann Laber, a nurse who was testing all the students at St. Lawrence Elementary. Clay mentioned that he couldn't see some letters.

"He said, 'You know that black dot in your eye?' We didn't know what he was talking about," said Pam Walker, his mother.

"I didn't know what the black dot was," Clay said.

Laber recognized the problem and immediately sent Clay to Ironton optometrist Nick Weber at the Ironton Vision Center. From there, Clay was sent to a specialist in Huntington, W.Va. The examination resulted in a trip to Columbus, first to University Hospital and then Children's Hospital.

After test results, Clay was sent to Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia where doctors told parents Pam and C.C. Walker that the eye had to be removed.

"The doctors said there were a 1,000 little seeds in his eye and (the eye) was ready to explode. It would have gone into his brain," Pam said. "The doctors said they had never seen (this type of cancer) in someone his age. It usually happens to younger children. It all happened in seven days. We didn't even get time to think about it."

C.C. said the doctors did a great job, but he said the family owed a great deal to Laber.

"She's our hero. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't have caught it in time," C.C. said.

When Clay returned to school, first grade teacher Becky Zornes had a surprise awaiting: Every student was wearing an eye patch.

"Clay was a little nervous and it helped lighten the situation. It was pretty cool," C.C. said.

A giant banner hung from the house that read, "Welcome Home Clay." Well wishers sent enough cards and letters to fill a couple of garbage bags.

"The kids were great, the parents were great, the teachers and everyone were just great. There were prayers from everywhere," Pam said.

C.C., who works at the Federal Prison in Cannonsburg, Ky., said the outpouring of affection overwhelmed the family.

"Working in a prison, you can get a little cynical. This has restored my faith in humanity," C. C. said.

Clay was fitted for a prosthetic eye that is almost impossible to detect as artificial. But looking normal wasn't what concerned Clay the most.

Clay asked the doctors if he would be able to play his favorite sports again and got a welcomed response of "Yes."

"I want to be a normal person. I don't want people to treat me different," Clay said. "I want to play baseball and basketball and football. Maybe I'll get to play hockey. I want to learn to skate and I want to play college hockey."

"I was worried (the eye) wouldn't be good enough," Pam said. "But the people who made it were great. They'd bring on and I'd say, 'the color is a little off,' or 'can you get it bigger to open the eye more.' They didn't get upset. They would say, 'You're right. We'll fix it.' They were super."

The return to normalcy began with baseball. But since Clay was a right-handed batter, C.C. attempted to make a lefty out of Clay in order to help him see the ball more easily.

The experiment failed and was scrapped.

"He's got a beautiful swing. He would be a natural from the left side, but he couldn't hit the ball," C.C. said. "He said he wanted to try right handed, so I let him and he began to hit the ball better and better all the time."

A slight adjustment by Clay helped the youngster regain his hitting form from his natural right side.

"I was used to batting right. I had to turn my head a little," Clay said.

The regular season ended this past week and Clay's team, the Dr. Barnett Athletics, finished in second place. Clay played second base and all the outfield positions. He said one game really stood out and served notice that he had made the adjustment.

"I hit a grand slam home run and we beat the Indians that day," Clay said.

Actually, C.C. said he knew Clay was back to normal long before he returned to the baseball field. After a week of school, Mrs. Zornes called to give Clay's parents an update.

"She said Clay was doing well and that he'd already got caught up on all his work. Then she said there was a problem and I thought, 'Uh-oh. What's wrong?' She said one of the girls asked to see under his eye patch and he showed her. She screamed and ran. Clay thought that was pretty cool and he began to run around and scare all the girls," C.C. said with a chuckle.

"At that point, I knew he was okay."

The experience has Clay thinking about becoming a doctor when he gets older.

"I might want to be a doctor when I grow up. I'd like to help people," Clay said.

"He's the most loving boy I've ever seen. He'll give you a hung in front of people and it doesn't bother him," C.C. said.

Pam, who gets emotional every time she talks about the ordeal, has been amazed by her son's ability to deal with everything.

"He never complains. He never cried after surgery and the tests after surgery were worse," Pam said.

Actually, mom and dad shouldn't be surprised by Clay's courage. After all, he's in a league of his own.