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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Fitch senior looks to become caring doctor after overcoming her health problems

    Fitch High School Senior Gillian Riley demonstrates an exercise while leading a full body workout class at Crowned Fit Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    Fitch High School Senior Gillian Riley demonstrates an exercise while leading a full body workout class at Crowned Fit Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    Fitch High School Senior Gillian Riley walks around the gym watching clients perform the exercise she asked them to do while leading a full body workout class at Crowned Fit Sunday, May 19, 2024, in Groton. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    Senior Profiles 2024 logo

    Editor’s note: The Day publishes an annual series of stories spotlighting outstanding seniors graduating from the region’s 16 public and private high schools.

    Groton ― Robert E. Fitch High School senior Gillian Riley said her recovery from anorexia nervosa showed her the importance of a caring doctor.

    Riley, who plans to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, said she wants to be the kind of doctor who cares for people and gets them through tough times, because being a doctor is not just about knowing biology or chemistry.

    “It’s about really being able to empathize with patients and being able to understand what they’re going through and help them get through those times,” she said.

    In her freshman year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Riley was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and started high school from a treatment center in North Carolina.

    She said it was challenging to keep her grades up because she was only allowed to dedicate about an hour a day to her schoolwork. She had a poor experience at the treatment center, and it taught her to advocate for better mental health treatment.

    When she returned home, she said she struggled with being a teenager and coming back to school after not having seen people for awhile. She said it was hard do schoolwork while trying to recover and going to weekly doctor’s appointments and, at one point, online treatment. She said the hybrid learning posed another challenge.

    She said her guidance counselor, Dan Couture, and her mother, who sat by her side, helped her through everything.

    Riley said at first she wanted to recover for her mother, but then she realized she had to recover for herself. She added that finding that inner strength helped her get through the hard times.

    She said focusing her energy into powerlifting and an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program also helped her.

    “Powerlifting was probably the thing that saved me the most because I could then again put that control that I wanted once to being thin to now into being strong and also breaking down the stereotypes that females can’t have muscle and they can’t work out because that’s not true at all,” she said.

    She began competing in powerlifting and holds the state record for her weight class in Connecticut and placed in the top 10 for her weight class at high school nationals.

    In the International Baccalaureate program, she rebuilt herself academically and saw she could become the doctor she always wanted to be.

    Riley said she will attend her top college choice, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    She plans to study neuroscience, with a double major or minor in Spanish, and follow a pre-medical curriculum. She then plans to attend medical school and do a medical mission abroad.

    Riley said she was inspired to go into pediatric medicine, after being in the hospital and seeing the children there with so much joy and light even though they were going through scary times.

    She said her experience of being a patient will make her a better doctor. She said the few doctors who really made a difference in her recovery knew her story and didn’t make assumptions based off of diagnostic criteria.

    She wants to help other women join the medical field and teach medical students how to speak up for themselves.

    She works at Karma Kitchen in Mystic and teaches fitness classes at Crowned Fit in Groton, a women’s empowerment gym.

    She said she’s found her passion for fitness and helping other people live a healthier lifestyle.

    She also volunteers at Westerly Hospital and is in the Key Club and National Honors Society.

    “Through every challenge, big or small, Gillian has not just persevered and overcome but has thrived and grown,” Couture said. “To show for it all, next month Gillian will graduate with some of the highest grades in some of our hardest classes.”

    “More than all this, Gillian is kind, humble, and appreciative,” he added. “She’s quick with a smile and to say thank you to those who help her. She’s a great advocate both for herself and for those around her.”

    Her mother, Heather Riley, said her daughter is one of the most driven people she knows.

    She said she is so proud of all her daughter has accomplished and thinks in the future she will make patients’ experiences better.

    “She is very passionate and fearless,” she said.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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