SUNY Cortland student, diagnosed with tumor, honored alongside Yankees legend Bernie Williams

The following is a republished press release…to submit a community announcement, email Peter Blanchard at [email protected].

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CORTLAND, N.Y. – SUNY Cortland sophomore Kaley Clavell understands what it means to be tested outside the classroom. It’s a skill that will benefit the aspiring teacher for a lifetime, especially when she eventually stands in front of a classroom of her own.

Last winter, after a successful first semester at the college, the Suffern, N.Y. native made a visit to the local oral surgeon for a scheduled wisdom teeth removal. But the doctor discovered something more serious: a tumor in her jaw had gone undetected for years.

“They caught (the tumor) at the best time,” Clavell said. “It basically eroded my jaw bone.”

A major surgery would borrow an artery, nerves and six inches of fibula bone from her leg. All of the teeth on the lower right side of her mouth needed to be removed. And then, of course, there was the likelihood of surgery scars plus at least three months of recovery.

Some teenagers might have shut themselves off to the world, but Clavell responded in her typical way — by flashing her contagious smile and confronting the challenge with a positive outlook.

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SUNY Cortland sophomore Kaley Clavell was honored by the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine alongside New York Yankees legend Bernie Williams (pictured), American jazz drummer Roy Haynes and Dr. Gabriel Sara, an oncologist

It’s why the childhood education major was honored Monday evening by the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, alongside New York Yankees legend Bernie Williams, American jazz drummer Roy Haynes and Dr. Gabriel Sara, an oncologist at Mount Sinai Roosevelt. Every year, the hospital honors one patient, one doctor and prominent people who embody the positive spirit of music therapy.

This past summer, during Clavell’s weeklong stay in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, she received daily visits from musical therapy staff members. Their job relies on singing and instruments to relieve the stress and anxiety that often come with hospitalization.

“I never really had that moment when I thought it was going to be impossible,” she said. “It was just something that I had to do, especially for my parents.”

“The description of what she was going through sounded very severe, yet she was so upbeat,” said Ronnie Casella, associate dean of SUNY Cortland's School of Education, who regularly works with students in the school when they encounter serious medical emergencies. “Usually students will take a semester off, and it would have been completely warranted in Kaley’s case. The tumor was found to be benign shortly after the initial detection, but it still meant juggling several follow-up appointments with the oral surgeon during the spring semester of Clavell’s freshman year. She notified Casella that she might miss sporadic classes for doctor’s visits in New York City. Clavell’s bigger plan was to undergo surgery early in the summer so that she wouldn’t miss fall semester classes.

“But she kept saying, ‘I’m really determined to come back on time.’ And sure enough, despite some complications, she made it back.”

The complications involved a delay in Clavell’s surgery, which was pushed from June to mid-July. She said the only low point came roughly a month after the procedure took place, when her face swelled unexpectedly a few weeks before she was supposed to return to Cortland for her sophomore year.

Clavell eventually thought back to her hospital stay, which included her 19th birthday five days after the surgery took place. She was on doctor’s orders to eat through a feeding tube, so cake and ice cream weren’t part of the celebration. Thanks, however, to musical therapists and medical staff, it turned out to be one of the most memorable days of her life.

“It was the best birthday because it made me realize how little the material things matter,” she said.

Clavell arrived back on SUNY Cortland’s campus in time for her sophomore year, feeling stronger for having gone through the physically and emotionally draining ordeal. The experience offered a unique perspective that ultimately will make her a stronger teacher, she said.

“I feel like I’ll be able to relate better to students during those difficult times,” said Clavell, a second-year member of the College’s Cortland Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E.) program, which provides scholarship support for future educators who agree to teach in a high-needs, urban school for at least two years after graduation.

More recently, she’s become a champion for the Head and Neck Cancer Foundation’s “Faces of Courage” campaign. And in addition to the award she received Monday, she’ll also speak at Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s annual gala at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in November.

In truth, Clavell will end up missing some class time during the fall semester because of her surgery — but for the best reasons possible.

“Kaley’s been amazingly upbeat through all of it,” Casella said. “She’s just been a trooper in so many ways.”

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