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Dr. Alexander Kalenak: My chance meeting with a world-class knee surgeon from Nanty Glo, Pa.

… who remembered my father from 35 years earlier

This trip to the Hershey Medical Center was one that I will never forget, for a number of reasons. I was having some problems with my knee, and after a number of consultations, I figured that a trip to Hershey would be valuable.

When I confirmed my appointment the day prior to the session, the nurse said, “You will be seeing Dr. Kalenak.”

I said to myself, “Wow.” I know him only because I saw his photo every year in the Penn State football programs. He was the PSU team doctor, a distinguished, grey-haired man.

Interesting part of the meeting: Nanty Glo, Pa.

When he walked in a shook my hand, he said, “I wasn’t sure which one I was meeting — until I saw your birth date.”

I thought that was strange. How would he know my father, who had the same name as I did?

His answer was interesting — and this is as I remember it,

I grew up in Nanty Glo, and I played high school basketball in Miner's Hall there. I was not very good, so I used to pay attention to the people I saw when I was sitting on the bench. Your dad refereed our games, and I used to follow him intently. He was so good, but what I remember is that he carried himself with such dignity. Everything he did was so precise, so particular. I just never forgot him.”

And this was 35 years after he had left Nanty Glo.

Impressive career

Dr. Kalenak may be the most distinguished native of Nanty Glo, albeit one whom few people remember today. He was one of 11 children of Michael and Anna Kalenak, who were immigrants to America. His father was a coal miner, as were so many at that time, and he said that one of his brothers was also a physician.

He graduated from Nanty Glo High School in 1953 and from Penn State in 1957 with a degree in pre-medicine. Four years later, he earned an M.D. from Hahneman Medical School in Philadelphia.

After an internship and three years in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon, he started on what became his lifetime passion, the study of knee injuries. He was one of the first physicians in the U.S. to use arthroscopic surgery for diagnosing knee damage as an assistant professor at Albany Medical College. Then in 1973, he was appointed assistant professor of medicine at Hershey.

One of the top knee surgeons in the U.S.

When I said that he was a world-class orthopedic surgeon, that was not hyperbole. In fact, he was the person who started sports medicine clinics that can now be found everywhere in the U.S.,

In Central Pennsylvania he pioneered the use of the arthroscope in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of injuries of the knee. He fostered and developed the concept of a sports medicine center where the orthopaedic surgeon works alongside of- and as a team member with - the primary care physician, athletic trainer, physical therapist, and others- to provide care to all athletes: high school, college, recreational and professional.

In 1980 he established a one-year fellowship in Sports Medicine, which continued on an annual basis during his tenure at Penn State. The fellowship was unique in that the fellow was appointed to the full-time academic staff and therefore, had clinical responsibilities to not only sports medicine patients but to all orthopaedic patients.

Alexander Kalenak, M.D. , American Orthopedic Society, 2004

Engaging bedside manner

What I saw 34 years ago was pretty much accurate. He was personable and kind and very specific about what I needed to do. His obituary said this about him,

Dr. Kalenak was a beloved teacher, physician, and friend through a long, distinguished career as an orthopedic surgeon in the Hershey area. Inspired by his immigrant parents, Alex Kalenak lived his life guided by love of learning, love of family, and by his strong faith. His signature gentle approach comforted and encouraged everyone he met. Giving unselfishly of himself, he engaged each patient as a whole person in an active healing relationship.

Obituary, Hoover Funeral Home, 2008

I will forever be indebted to him because he also gave me some tough love,

You’re 40-years-old. Why do you need to play basketball, to ski, or to run? I am putting in knee replacements in people every day because they ran too much. If you continue to do that, I will be replacing yours, too.

I listened to him. Told me to walk distances, to use a ski machine like a Nordic Track, and to forget about doing any heavy workouts that involved the knee. I have followed his advice, and I still do not need a knee replacement almost 60 years after my surgery.

The sports medicine center at PSU is a tribute to him. It was his dream, and he accomplished it during his active years.

Dr. Kalenak passed away in 2008 after a four-year battle with cancer.

I did not realize this until I looked for a photo of him. He wrote a book about his life. I have ordered it through Amazon. I used the jacket in lieu of his photo.

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