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A Life Saved and a Dream Fulfilled

Don Riley

By Chandra Harris-McCray

Don Riley was not a typical medical student. Already in his late 20s, married and with a daughter on the brink of death battling an acute form of meningitis, Don barely got to know his classmates, let alone attend a football game or club meeting, while a student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center from 1970 to 1973.

In between classes, night jobs and spending hours on end at the hospital, Don got an hour of sleep from 4:30 to 5:30 a.m. and sometimes barely had a chance to shower. The basics of life seemed trivial to Don and not as important as being by the bedside of his critically-ill, then 4-year-old daughter, Cindy, and his wife, Pat. "I was 15 months in as a medical student and my daughter was dying," he says.

Suffering from a blood-clotting disorder as the complications of meningitis ravaged her small body, Cindy's life was spared at the hands of doctors and UT Health Science Center medical residents, who stepped out on a limb to try a new drug therapy and other treatments.

The indelible memories of 22 surgeries and spending three months and a day in the hospital are etched in Don's mind. "My wife would bandage and dress every wound. Once my daughter's big toe fell off in her hand, but she just kept going, as if nothing happened," he recalls. "She showed me what true strength, grace and courage are."

Stretching Each Dollar
An unwavering determination prevailed as Don sold the little house in East Memphis that his family had known as home in order to be able to pay his tuition for medical school. With the gift of money collected by his neighbors and a landlord willing to bend the rules and lease to someone unemployed, Don moved his family into a small apartment.

"We received a medical bill of $32,000 and it might as well have been for $350 million, because no matter the amount, we just did not have it," Don says. The hospital wrote off the entire bill. "UT lengthened medical student insurance coverage as a result of our experience," Don says.

Never Giving Up His Dream
As hard as things seemed, Don's thoughts never turned to withdrawing from medical school. That same steadfastness and confidence that got him through his daughter's illness is what got him into medical school. "I knew I was older than most in medical school, but I also knew I would not be turned down. Life experiences had not prepared me to be turned down or to be a quitter. And if I had been turned down, I would have applied for the next class, and if they continued to be misguided, then I would continue reapplying until they came to their senses," Don recalls saying during his interview for admission into medical school.

Wearing a suit first worn by his father, Don sat in front of Pat Wall, the former chancellor of the UT Health Science Center—who was then serving on the medical school's admission committee—unaware that one of his coat sleeves still had the dry cleaners tag attached. "I really thought I was the big cheese," Don says, laughing at himself, "until I got home and my wife asked, 'What is that on your sleeve?'"

The letter inside an orange-striped envelope sealed his fate and what his church-going, Bible-toting grandmother always believed. "She would always say, 'Son, you are going to be my doctor.' She was right," Don says. "She was a pillar in the church. When the church doors were opened, she was the one who opened them, so you would think she would have wanted me to be a minister. No, she wanted me to be a doctor."

A Long Journey
At 15, baseball was on Don's mind. After being heavily recruited, he was offered a baseball scholarship to Ole Miss. "But I said, 'No, thank you.'" Instead, he decided to attend the University of Alabama to be closer to the former Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus, Miss., where his future wife was enrolling. However, after the death of his younger brother and father, Don moved to Memphis to be with his mother and siblings.

After working for several years in restaurant and telephone management, Don enrolled in classes at Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis. "I had a physics teacher who considered UT medical graduates the best. You had to get through the physics classes of Dr. C.C. Ijams to determine if you had what he thought were the necessary skills to be a medical student at UT." Don proved he had what it took to succeed in medicine.

Upon graduating with his medical degree from the UT Heath Science Center, Don became a radiologist, eventually retiring in 2003. "I would still be practicing, but for the first time in my life, I did not want to do what I loved anymore," he says.

Don lost Pat, his wife of almost 40 years, in 2001-the day before 9/11. Congenital heart disease, literally, took the life out of the woman he first laid eyes on in Mrs. Adams' eighth-grade math class. "It took her a few years to come around," Don says with a jovial smirk, "but I always knew she would be mine."

Helping Others Through His Will
"She taught me some of life's greatest lessons," Don says of Pat. "I never decline to help anyone who needs my help. The medical staff of UT and Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center saved my daughter's life, so my gift is just a small token of my gratitude," he says.

Don's generous bequest will be used to benefit cardiology, pediatrics and radiology, as well as to establish scholarships for students in the College of Medicine. "It was UT," he says, "that helped me fulfill my dream of practicing medicine."

If you would like to include UT in your will or explore other gift options that may be right for you, contact the Office of Planned Giving at (865) 974-4826 or

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