In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

October 3, 2019

Alice Kalin Was Told She Had a Year to Live — Then She Came to Mayo Clinic

By In the Loop

More than 60 years ago, Alice Kalin was told the cancer in her leg would end her life. But a trip to Mayo Clinic and some advice from her surgeon would change everything.

Alice Kalin stood in the shower, tears streaming down her face. She'd been to the doctor, and the news was not good. There was a large tumor in her leg, and nothing could be done. "I was told to get my affairs in order," Alice tells us. "They said I had about a year left." She thought of her husband, of her five little children. And all she could do was cry.

Then she heard her husband's voice. "Get out of the shower," he told Alice, "there's someone here to see you." One of her husband's Air Force colleagues had come to the house. He was a new physician on the base and had trained at Mayo Clinic. He told Alice about one of his mentors, an orthopedic surgeon named William Bickel, M.D. "I think he can save your life," the young man told Alice. "My husband got emergency leave and we headed to Rochester," she says. They met with Dr. Bickel, and the rest — some 61 years later — is history. Joyful, wonderful, treasured history, some of which Alice, now 96, shared with us during a recent "pilgrimage" back to Rochester.

"I was in the OR right away," she tells us of that lifesaving visit in 1958. Dr. Bickel removed Alice's left leg and hip, and afterward gave her good news — and some good advice. "He told me he'd gotten all of the cancer," Alice says. "Then he told me, 'I want you to forget it. Forget the name. This is in the past. Go and have a good life.'"

She's done just that. Alice raised those five children, relocating every few years due to the demands of her husband's military career. She traveled and entertained, cooked and cleaned, did laundry and got groceries. She climbed mountains, ladders and stairs. And she did it all on one leg — aided by two sturdy crutches.

"Mother is graceful on crutches," Karie Kalin, Alice's youngest child, tells us. She has no memory of her mother pre-surgery, and "never thought of mother as handicapped," she tells us. "There's nothing she couldn't do." That's due in part to a decision Alice made shortly after losing her leg. "I decided that if I was going to be on crutches, I'd be the best on crutches that I could be," she says.

Some of Alice's fondest memories of her time at Mayo include the loving attention she received from the Sisters of Saint Francis during her month of recuperation after surgery. "They took absolutely fabulous care of me," she says. That care included serving up an interesting breakfast. Each morning, the sisters would bring Alice a glass of red wine with an egg in it. She had a hard time stomaching the concoction, until the sisters frothed it for her. ("Apparently it was good protein," Alice tells us.)

While some things have changed since that first visit to Mayo, Alice and Karie agree there's much more that's remained the same. "I could spot a Mayo Clinic physician a mile away," Karie tells us. She and Alice, who live in California, make frequent trips to Mayo Clinic in Arizona and tell us the physicians they've seen over the years share many of the same qualities Alice first noticed in Dr. Bickel, including curiosity, empathy and respect for the patient.

They say that's especially true of Keith Stewart, M.B., Ch.B. "Dr. Stewart saved mom's life over 11 years ago and is the lead doctor of her continued care at Mayo," Karie says. "To Mom, Dr. Stewart is the epitome of the "Mayo doctor" and a shining example of just how special the doctors and their care of the patient is at Mayo Clinic."

It's care like Dr. Stewart's that has inspired Karie and Alice to refer many friends and family members to Mayo over the years. "We have not had one person complain," Karie says. "I haven't heard one person regret getting a second opinion."

That includes, of course, the Kalins themselves. "If not for Mayo Clinic, I would have lost my mother," Karie says. Instead, she grew up with a "genuine, joyous, positive person who starts every morning with a smile. There is a light about my mother." It's shining in part, Alice tells us, because she's followed her doctor's orders. "Dr. Bickel said I should go out and have a good life," she says. "That's the foundation that started it all."

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Tags: Dr. Keith Stewart, Dr. William Bickel, Orthopedic Surgery, Patient Stories

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