An Inspiring Chance Encounter

Alabama patient has an inspiring chance encounter with Mayo Clinic benefactors

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Kerri Clemons has been battling a series of complex illnesses over the years including paralysis. Her daughter, Haley, and husband, Tim, have been with her through it all. "The surgery I had at Mayo changed my life," Kerri says.

Kerri Clemons was terrified after two tumors in two years. Now, she was unexpectedly alone, too.

Kerri was at an Alabama airport gate on her way to a six-week post-surgical appointment in Rochester, Minnesota, when her sister, Richi Reynolds, became violently ill just prior to boarding the plane.

With Kerri's husband, Tim, already managing a business and assisting her elderly parents, Kerri was faced with a trip to Mayo Clinic alone.

"I told Richi to call Tim to pick her up, and I'd be fine. All the while, I was trying not to let her see how scared I was," says Kerri.

Kerri held back tears until she was on the plane. Then, she cried quietly all the way to her stopover in Chicago.

"I'm very spiritual, and I prayed for someone to help me through this … even for someone to just talk to me. I was terrified to be going through this alone," she recalls.

Faith, Hope and Strength

Kerri, a 52-year-old mom, has Behcet's syndrome, a rare genetic disorder causing inflammation in the blood vessels. Kerri's symptoms didn't begin to appear until about age 22 and were manageable for many years. However, due to the disease, she was forced to retire in 2011 from the job she loved as a social worker.

In 2012, Kerri was diagnosed with chondroma, a benign bone tumor, in her knee. She had it surgically removed. A year later, it returned. Again, Kerri had it surgically removed. This second surgery resulted in paralysis of Kerri's right leg.

Six weeks post-surgery, Kerri's oncologist detected the tumor had returned a third time. Her physicians then referred her to Mayo Clinic, where she consulted with a team including Franklin H. Sim, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon; Scott T. Persellin, M.D., a rheumatologist; and Robert J. Spinner, M.D., a neurosurgeon.

Since hormones contribute to Behcet's flareups, Kerri's local physician recommended a hysterectomy. He discovered a second primary cancer in her ovaries.

Immediately following her recovery and cleared of the ovarian cancer, Kerri flew to Rochester to focus on the tumor in her knee.

Kerri's Mayo team discovered that her cancer was actually a chondrosarcoma, a rare malignant cancer that begins in the bones and can return repeatedly. Dr. Spinner, the Burton M. Onofrio, M.D. Professor of Neurosurgery, was able to repair her peroneal nerve to restore feeling in her leg.

Dr. Sim removed the chondrosarcoma and rebuilt the top of the fibula where bone was removed. And Dr. Persellin addressed the Behcet's.

I'll Never Forget That Bracelet

At a layover at one of the world's busiest airports, Chicago's O'Hare, Kerri sat with her leg outstretched in a full leg brace across from two women and a man who were talking and giggling.

As Kerri awaited her flight to Rochester, she began to cry again, thinking of the days ahead and how she would manage by herself.

"Between my tears, a blue sparkle bracelet caught my eye," says Kerri. "I looked up and said, 'I love your bracelet,' and that's all it took."

Kerri shared her story with Paulette and Joe Maslick and Laree Perez, who were on their way to Mayo Clinic. The three, who are members of Mayo Clinic's Leadership Council in Arizona, were researching artwork in hopes of commissioning a statue on the Phoenix campus. "At this time, we didn't have a concept of the statue and were beginning to question if we should really embark on such a big project," says Laree.

We Got You

Kerri explained how worried her family was that she was traveling by herself. Paulette asked Kerri to call her mom. Paulette recalls, "I told her mom not to worry — that we got her — and she's just fine." Paulette then also spoke to Kerri's husband and sister, assuring them she was in good hands. Kerri says, "My husband was like, 'Who are these people? Are you sure you're safe?'"

There were snow drifts several feet high and negative temperatures when they landed in Rochester. "There was no way we were going to let Kerri take a cab from the airport and try to manage her luggage," says Paulette.

Artist Daniel Anthony joined the group and drove them to their hotel. "The men helped me check into the hotel and carried my luggage. Paulette and Laree helped me in my room," recalls Kerri. They exchanged information, and as Kerri settled in for the night, her new friends called to check on her.

I Thought I'd Never See Them Again

As Kerri entered the restaurant for breakfast the next day, she was surprised to once again be greeted by four smiles.

"My new friends told me to sit down as they again took care of me — asking me what I wanted from the buffet line," says Kerri. "These four were like my social workers. They took me in. They did it because they wanted to and had the heart to do it," says Kerri. "They have brought me so much hope and how they view people has helped me."

The new friends chatted about their lives and the artwork that adorns Mayo Clinic.

"In my trips to Rochester, I would often enjoy the mesmerizing effects of the Barbara Woodward Lips Atrium in the Charlton Building. I often sought out quiet places to enjoy the artwork, to rest between appointments, and to just be quiet and still," says Kerri.

It was at that time Laree, Paulette and Joe knew they were on the right path to bring a sculpture to the Phoenix campus. They hugged and said their goodbyes. Kerri went off to her appointments. The Maslicks, Laree and Dan went off to bring a sculpture to Arizona.

Inspiring Artwork

The friends commissioned world-renowned sculptor Glenna Goodacre to create the statue. She specializes in capturing historical figures displayed in community settings. Her most well-known works include the Vietnam Women's Memorial installed in Washington, D.C., and After the Ride, a 7 1/2-foot standing figure of President Ronald Reagan in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.

The benefactors relied on Glenna's expertise to design the sculpture based on the feelings they wanted it to convey. "Kerri became our poster child for the statue, and we let Dan and Glenna do their magic," says Paulette.

The Making of the 'Ancestors'

The sculpture team spent several months researching the Doctors Mayo and perusing archival photos and materials. They studied not only the physical features of each figure but also the Mayo family's personalities, quotes and life experiences.

When the friends first saw the miniature concept of the statue, they couldn't help but think of Kerri.

"Glenna captured Mayo's history and the feeling that no one is alone — that you have the Mayo brothers and their father looking out for you saying … We got you," says Paulette.

The only statue ever created of the father and sons together, the 9-foot-tall Ancestors statue greets guests on the Phoenix campus.

It features William Worrall Mayo, M.D., and his sons, William James Mayo, M.D., and Charles Horace Mayo, M.D., who each represent a key component of how Mayo Clinic achieves its mission to inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research. Father Mayo faces north toward Rochester, and Dr. Charlie's hand is extended to invite all to put their hand in his as they enter Mayo Clinic.

The Right Place, the Right Time

Although the friends have not been able to get together since their meeting in 2014, they stay in contact and are planning to visit Arizona in 2017.

"I'm so blessed to have friends like them in my corner," says Kerri.

Today Kerri is cancer-free, she can walk without a brace, and the function in her foot has returned.

"Kerri came to us at the exact time we needed her, and we came to her at the exact time she needed us," says Laree.

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Learn more about the making of the statue by viewing Honoring Our Founders: The Mayo Ancestors Statue in Arizona, produced by Mayo Clinic Heritage Films.