Amy Donaldson: Bingham football player faces his toughest foe — cancer — with help from his community

Published: Sunday, April 6 2014 8:45 p.m. MDT

The Culley family. From left: Riley, Levi, Mallory (on Skype), Jackie and Paul.

Courtesy of the Culley family

SOUTH JORDAN — The pain shattered Jackie Culley’s best defenses, escaping in raw, guttural sobs.

As she watched her hulking football-player-of-a-son follow a doctor down a hallway for tests that she suspected would confirm her worst fears, she didn’t cry.

She wailed.

“Right in the middle of the hallway with everyone in the waiting room watching,” the South Jordan mother of three wrote in her journal. “How is this happening? There goes my baby. God, please take care of him. The next time I see him, it will be with the knowledge that my son has cancer. ... I cannot explain the horror, the fear, the lack of control.”

This is not the way Riley Culley’s senior year was supposed to end.

Until March 24, the tenderhearted 17-year-old enjoyed an almost storybook senior year. It began when the 6-foot-3, 235-pound center was elected a team captain for the Bingham Miners football team last summer. His leadership and hard work helped the Miners to an undefeated season, capped by a 5A state championship in November.

He was honored as a first-team all-state player, and in February, he signed a scholarship to play football for Dixie State University.

He’d recently decided to serve an LDS mission right after high school, following the example of his older sister Mallory, who was called to serve in Santos, Brazil.

The dream began to unravel the night of March 16.

“Riley woke me up in the middle of the night in severe pain on his left side,” Jackie Culley said. “From the description of symptoms, I wondered if he had kidney stones.”

The next day, Jackie took her son to the family physician, who found no evidence of kidney stones. They were told to come back in a week if the pain persisted.

But a day later, the pain was so severe that Jackie mentioned it to a friend. She gave Culley the name of her urologist, and Jackie called him expecting to wait several weeks for an appointment.

In the first of many miracles the family has experienced, Jackie was told the doctor could see them the next morning.

Dr. Matthew Christopher met with the family and, after listening to the symptoms, suggested blood work and a CT scan of the kidneys and bladder. Almost as an afterthought, Jackie decided to mention the fact that one of Riley’s ribs (near the pain) was sticking out a bit farther than its counterpart on his right side. The doctor examined him and suggested it was probably nothing, but then added that he’d make sure the scans included that rib area.

They went to Lone Peak Hospital for the CT scan and blood work, and they were on their way home when Dr. Christopher called and said he needed them to return to the hospital for more tests. Before they’d even arrived back at the hospital, the doctor called a second time and said he’d been discussing Riley’s scans with a radiologist.

“This is where life started to feel like a dream,” she recalled. “He said, 'I’ve been talking with the radiologist and he feels like it is important that Riley gets an entire body bone scan today.'”

They waited at the hospital while Dr. Christopher tried to get them an appointment. While Riley went into the hospital for the additional blood work, Jackie sat outside trying to grasp what was happening to her son.

“I sat in the car and felt my life change,” she said. “Part of me knew it was something bad.”