Minnesotan finds more than sunshine in land of Rainbows — An Edge Interview

Forty-five years ago, Earl Bakken developed the first battery-powered, transistorized pacemaker and co-founded Medtronic Inc. The company, still developing ever-improving pacemakers and many other high-tech products for cardiac and neurologic health, now employs 10,000 people worldwide. Bakken has been called the “father of high-tech medicine,” and he is considered a motivating force behind Medical Alley, Minnesota’s formidable group of medical device manufacturers.

Earl E. Bakken, his business card says. Founder and Director Emeritus, Medtronic, Inc. And then there is his other business card. That one says Earl E. Bakken, President, Board of Directors, North Hawaii Community Hospital, Inc.

These cards hint at the larger-than-life, can-do story of Earl Bakken’s make-it-happen walk through his worlds. His has been a lifetime of creative genius and commitment to excellence, of curiosity and questing for answers, and of solid achievements all over the world through Medtronic – and in Hawaii with a new hospital.

His is a most generous spirit, ready to serve and give back to the global community.

Upon retirement and moving to the kinder climate of Hawaii, Bakken quickly saw a need in his new home area for a hospital. As is his fashion, he filled that need in fine style. Incorporating his ideas of holistic healing and healthy healing environments, he has shepherded into reality a new concept in hospital construction and operation.

What makes the North Hawaii Community Hospital different from other hospitals?
Earl Bakken: The hospital, which will be open for patients in early April, will include, on the staff M.D.s of course, but also chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, naturopathic and Hawaiian healing herbal approaches.

Of course, naturopaths will also use homeopathy and Chinese herbal remedies, and the Hawaiian healing includes herbs, massage, and psychology, as well as native nutrition.

Our basic people who need the hospital are the Hawaiians. They have the worst health of any of the diverse groups in our community. And they don’t like coming into the hospital because they figure it’s just a place to go to die, which is often the case. So, we’ve designed the hospital as a healing instrument itself, and as a place to be very attractive and spiritual for the native people, who are not used to the warehouses we build to store sick people.

The rooms are big enough to accommodate family members who wish to stay, and we will allow pets into the rooms, because every room opens to the outside. The family will be able to cook certain ethnic foods that we may not be equipped to supply from the kitchen. If the patient is not capable of learning or becoming empowered, then the family caregiver can.

All of the staff and personnel who work in the hospital are familiar with many types of healing, and agreeable to work together with other healers. And the hospital will have many education and outreach programs. One that’s already very active is Tutu’s House.

In the Hawaiian culture, if you become ill, the first place you go is to Tutu’s, or to grandmother, the elder person in the family who supposedly knows the most about health. We do have some Hawaiian grandmothers working at Tutu’s House, and we have all of the books on medicine, on every disease, video tapes, and just every kind of thing they could need to study about the disease.

We put on approximately 30 programs per month on healthy diets, hula, ukulele, and other health related programs. We have cancer support groups, diabetic and caregiver support groups, teen-age parent groups, and all the way out to crystal therapy.

We’re adding a major computer set-up so people can get the latest information through Internet and all the university files, and we’ll have helpers there to lead novices onto the Internet and to do it on a daily basis.

With so much of this population unemployed, what is your expectation of third-party pay. How do you plan to thread that needle?
Bakken: It is quite an issue. I have several MD. activists there who are working with me, and we’re trying to move toward some soft of medical savings-account approach. We have to get patients empowered to understand what they need, to have the information and knowledge to work with an allopath or complimentary healer to discuss their problems and their options, then decide how they want to spend their allocations.

The medical savings plan works by allocating a lump sum of money to a patient to buy health care for the year. This money can purchase the health care of their wishes, from allopathic care to chiropractors and body therapies, to membership at a health dub, etc. If there’s anything left at the end of the year, then they get it as a bonus.

For hospitalization, the patient carries inexpensive catastrophic insurance — insurance for bills over $4,000. Under this system, the push is for receiving a monetary award for working toward good health. Everybody wins with this system, and it returns the doctor-patient relationship as well.

My sense in looking at your career and the astonishing things you have accomplished and created is that you probably have several other leaps planned once this hospital is running. Can you share any of those future dreams?
Bakken: My bottom line in working in northwest Hawaii is for the health of the 28,000 people there. That is my assignment from a group I belong to called Friends of the Future. We believe that in that corner of the island we have the poorest health of any place in the state, because we’ve had no hospital and very little access to knowledge.

Also, there is a 14 percent unemployment rate, which means stress, family problems, alcoholism, drugs. So, to achieve a healthy population, there must be jobs.

My thought is to bring in a lot of other clinics of every kind of healing. That would attract patients from around the world. We have a lot of basic things them: the weather, the location in the center of five former volcanoes that produces an energy vortex, and the strong manna (healing energy) there.

So, we want to utilize all that to produce a center where people who aren’t getting sufficient satisfaction from their home country’s health care can come and get analyzed and diagnosed. We have a lot of real good equipment to do that, and a lot of good physicians and alternative people.

Their families can come with them and vacation in the mountains and enjoy sea activities. Of course, we will be looking for people who can pay for their health care and time there. And we’re developing spas.

The new Millennium Institute has started there. They bring in speakers like Dr. Raymond Moody, Dr. Larry Dossey and Dr. Herbert Benson.

In the next few years, there’ll be clinics built for plastic surgery, pain, and a whole spectrum of mind, body, spirit, and consciousness healing approaches. I have a steering committee working on all of that, and support from many strong people there. We’re beginning to stimulate or be a catalyst to get this World Health Center going.

We’ll do wonderful things for the people who come there, but the bottom line is the money they’ll bring in will provide jobs and income for the local people, and improve their health in that way.

Wow! What a dream! I’d say you’ve been a major catalyst, all right. And, I’ll bet you sleep very well at night.
Bakken: Good sleep is very much needed for those of us who are getting older. But it is very true — my spirit does not get on the airplane when I leave Hawaii.

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Jan Thatcher Adams, M.D., has been in active Family Practice at Sundance Clinic in Shakopee for 20 years. In addition, she is Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Practice, University of Minnesota Medical School.

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