EAU CLAIRE — Jeff Calkins has a passion for baseball and softball. After coaching and acting as umpire for the Altoona Youth Softball & Baseball organization many years, he was happy to enjoy his granddaughter’s game from the stands.
But he wasn’t enjoying a game in June 2019 due to a persistent headache and pain in his neck.
“For the next week, I slept all the time and wasn’t eating. I lost 20 pounds,” said Calkins, 59, of Altoona.
Dr. Ginelle Zimmerman, a medical resident from the Mayo Clinic Family Medicine Residency program, sent Calkins to the emergency department, where a MRI of his head and neck showed a mass on his brain.
On June 27, 2019, Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon Dr. Ian Parney removed a two-inch tumor from Calkins’ brain.
Test results confirmed that it was a glioblastoma multiforme, commonly called glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the brain or spinal cord.
In addition to the fatigue, headaches and loss of appetite, Calkins also experienced nausea and seizures — symptoms common for a glioblastoma, said Dr. Zachary Wilson, Calkins’ radiation oncologist.
Calkins remembered the moments before his surgery.
“I kept thinking, ‘This could be it. They could never see me again,’” Calkins said. “I made the commitment to myself right there that this wasn’t going to beat me.”
Calkins was able to go home two days after surgery; he wore a device on his head that delivers electric fields to the brain, which can help stop the spread of cancer cells. After a few months of cancer treatment, he returned to his work as the lunch room and recess supervisor for the Altoona school district.
“The kids were great. They were interested in my machine and had a lot of questions,” said Calkins. “Anytime that I would be gone from school for an appointment, I made sure to tell the kids so they didn’t worry. When I came back, they would all clap and cheer for me. Those were powerful moments.”
Calkins wanted to give back to the students. With the permission of the school’s principal, he and his coworkers created 250 headbands, one for each student. Calkins’ plan was to ask the students to wear the headbands on “headband Wednesdays” to remind them to be positive and encouraging of each other.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools before the headbands could be distributed, but instead, a note from Calkins and a headband was given to each student when they picked up supplies at the end of the school year.
“I wrote in the note that everything was going good and the ‘picture’ of my head is good,” Calkins said. “I also told the parents that they are doing wonderful jobs at raising their children. They have so much care and compassion in them to share with me. They have been a wonderful support for me and my family.”
Reflecting on the previous year, Calkins believes he has been given a second chance at life.
“I believe there is a purpose for me here,” Calkins said. “The tumor could have killed me, but I try to keep a positive attitude and go at life full strength every day. I think it is up to each individual to decide if their journey is bumpy or smooth. It’s up to me to continue to do what I can do to live my life fully.”