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From Mayo to the world

September 12, 2018

In many ways, the story of Mayo Clinic fits into Ken Burns’ portfolio of award winning documentaries of American history.

“It’s the stories of something larger than life that speak to us and this place does,” Burns told a crowd at the Mayo Civic Center for the debut of his latest project, “The Mayo Clinic: Faith-Hope-Science.”

However, Burns said there’s something different about his film on the history of the Mayo Clinic from his other documentaries.

Started with a handshake partnership between the Sisters of St. Francis and an agnostic doctor, what eventually became the Mayo Clinic was founded on a philosophy to help people and put patients first. Three generations of Mayo doctors strove to learn cutting-edge medical procedures and technology and share what they learned.

Something in this complex equation propelled the clinic to become one of the top health-care destinations in the world, Burns said. He described it as a “secret sauce.”

“This is screaming the ingredients to the rest of the world,” he said of his film.

Big celebration

For Rochester, the film release was cause for a celebration that ran from the end of the workday long into the night. It included a block party on the Mayo Civic Center plaza, the screening of the film inside Taylor Arena and a lighted drone show over Mayo Park after the events inside.

Burns spoke on a panel immediately following the film screening. He was joined on the panel by Mayo CEO John Noseworthy and project producers Erik and Christopher Loren Ewers.

Burns said the models and ideals under which Mayo operates could provide blueprints to help address problems in the U.S. healthcare system.

“When you’re at the top of every list,” Burns said of the Mayo Clinic, “that ought to be a signal to other institutions.”

Burns said Rochester has reason to be proud but called the debut screening to a Rochester crowd “preaching to the choir.” He wants to reach a wider audience on Sept. 25, when the film debuts on PBS, he said.

“We want a lot of converts,” Burns said.

Cameo turns

The film was well received with moments of applause after interviews from the late Sen. John McCain, a Mayo Clinic patient, and the late Sister Generose Gervais, longtime administrator of Saint Marys Hospital.

Burns said he interviewed McCain at the senator’s office in Washington, D.C. He said his presence adds a reminder that political cooperation is not only possible but patriotic.

“It’s like he’s still speaking to us with that twinkle in his eye,” Burns said.

Gervais recounted speaking to a lawyer when Saint Marys and Mayo Clinic merged about why there wasn’t a contract between the two entities. If there was a problem, they met, discussed it and mutually decided on a solution and implemented it. The lawyer, she recalled, told her, “You just eliminated an entire profession.”

Other recognizable appearances in the film included the Dalai Lama — a Mayo Clinic patient — and Tom Hanks reading first-person accounts from some of the Mayos.

The film also features patients talking about their experiences. Burns and the producers said they had a hard time weaving those into the narrative.

“We know how to tell history and history is linear,” Burns said. “It was really challenging and it took a long time to emerge.”

‘It’s the same story’

Eventually, these stories fell into place interspersed with Mayo Clinic history relevant to cases today.

The film featured a young girl who had a brain tumor. Conventional treatment would stunt crucial brain development in the child. At Mayo Clinic, she was treated with a proton beam.

Burns noted that story related to W.W. Mayo’s decision to mortgage his home to buy a microscope for $600 in 1869. It took him 10 years to pay it off.

“That shoots you forward to the proton beam story,” Burns said. “That’s a $360 million investment and it’s the same story.”

However, Burns didn’t make the film through a rose-colored lens. He noted points in the Mayo history where the famous clinic fell short of its own expectations. He shared the story of a young woman under their care who died of cancer at age 24 and noted that it wasn’t until 1979 that a black doctor would have the opportunity to treat a patient there.

“This was not just a valentine and a wet kiss,” Burns said.

Noseworthy said the project was faithful to Mayo’s history and mission.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the fidelity of your work ... and the respect you showed to our patients, our staff, our history, our culture,” Noseworthy said.

Erik Ewers reciprocated the gratitude for access into the clinic.

“We waited for that moment when someone would tell us, ‘no,’” he said. “It couldn’t have gone better for us.”

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