Ohio Mom Refuses to Let Teen Pregnancies Stop Her from Becoming a Doctor: 'I Feel Nothing But Gratitude'

·5 min read
Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark Katie Clark (center) poses with her husband Curtis (second from left) and their sons (L-R) Brian, Max, Andrew and Colin.

Katie Clark's dream of being a doctor seemed to get further away with each year that passed after she became a teenage mom — but now the 43-year-old parent of four is proving it's never too late to reinvent yourself.

Clark's secret, she tells PEOPLE, was listening to her inner voice.

"That voice, it just would not quiet," says Clark, who will complete her medical residency and become an attending physician at an Ohio hospital next month.

Getting to this point took 18 years of grabbing classes when she could, juggling childcare for her kids and working a part-time job.

With those challenging years behind her, "I feel nothing but gratitude," she says.

Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark Katie Clark in 2022

It's a journey that began in the third grade thanks to her mom, a registered nurse who later became a nurse practitioner.

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"We always had medical textbooks around," Clark — whose story was first shared by the Akron Beacon Journal — recalls of her childhood. "My mom would have me present my own case to her and she would have me share what I thought my diagnosis was. I loved it."

But Clark's life changed at age 14 when she became pregnant with her first child. A freshman at an all-girls Catholic high school at the time, she gave birth shortly after her 15th birthday.

"There was a recognition that I was going to be young and this was going to change my life," Clark says of the "unexpected and unplanned" pregnancy, which turned out to be "really difficult and challenging" due to nausea and fatigue.

"I remember jumping up in the middle of class to run to the bathroom and not even making it," she says. "I threw up in a trash can in the hallway."

Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark In this family photo, Katie Clark holds her eldest son Brian, who was about a week old.

Clark gave birth a few weeks before finals and received help from her mother and sisters over the next few years. Still, she was up early every day to drop her son off at daycare before taking a city bus to school.

However, she missed her bus the day of the PSAT, the qualifying test for college scholarships, making her unable to take the test and ineligible for the college money she was seeking.

"It was one of those mornings moms have," she tells PEOPLE.

She still graduated, and at the age 18, she enrolled at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. A few months after her freshman year began, she became pregnant with her second son.

Ultimately, Clark decided to drop out of school in order to raise her two children.

"That was a really difficult time," she says. "Everything had still felt possible until then."

Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark Curtis and Katie Clark, who got engaged in fall of 2000, take a family photo with their sons Andrew (whose fingers signal that he was 2 years old at the time) and Brian.

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Two years later, Clark met her future husband, Curtis Clark, who happened to be the older brother of a high school friend. She was 20 at the time, and he was 22.

Curtis and Katie wed in 2001, and Curtis adopted his new wife's two sons. The two went on to have two sons of their own and moved around the country as her husband continued his schooling, medical residencies and fellowships in pediatric urology.

It wasn't long until Clark had a turn at following her dreams, though. At the age of 25, she re-started her academic career at a local community college, where she earned an associate's degree.

Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark Katie Clark in 2022

Clark then enrolled at the University of Kentucky, where she earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the age of 28.

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"I still wanted to take pre-med classes but it was difficult to schedule classes in between caring for the kids," she said. "It was starting to feel like it was never going to happen."

After returning to the suburban Cleveland area with her family, Clark finally saw her chance in front of her.

"I still had this tiny voice — I call it a dim light — [saying] maybe I could still see if I could go to medical school," she tells PEOPLE. "It was still there. I had to try."

So at 34, Clark began classes at Kent State University in Ohio, where her oldest son was a freshman in high school and her youngest was in preschool. She graduated with a biology degree in two years.

She then attended medical school at Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, an Ohio University program affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic, from which she graduated at 40.

Katie Clark
Katie Clark

Courtesy Katie Clark Katie Clark in 2022

"I wasn't the oldest but I was the one with the most children," she says with a laugh.

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Upon graduating from medical school, Clark became a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) and started a family medicine residency at Cleveland Clinic Akron General in Ohio. In June, she will finish her three-year program and become an attending physician at Akron General Health and Wellness Center in Stow, Ohio.

Clark's experience "gives her deep and valuable relationships with her patients," said Dr. Douglas Harley, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Cleveland Clinic Akron General. "It's obvious watching her in the clinical care setting, there is a level of being present in the moment, connected and focused, that is rare and special."

Clark believes her life story will give her the perspective and confidence to make her a compassionate and caring physician. And if she has a patient who is a teen mom, she already knows how she'll react.

"I want to look at the whole patient," she says. "I will tell them, 'We'll get through it.' "