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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Ken Burns Explores Faith, Hope and Science in His New PBS Documentary “The Mayo Clinic” 

Ken Burns Explores Faith, Hope and Science in His New PBS Documentary “The Mayo Clinic”
Photo Credit: Christopher Loren Ewers
Photo Credit: Christopher Loren Ewers

Is the Mayo Clinic the greatest medical center in the world? Every year, over 1 million patients arrive from all 50 states and over 150 countries.

Their guiding principal has always been: The needs of the patient come first. For namesake William Worrall Mayo, the scientific method, hard work and social justice were something he strongly believed in and wanted to make sure his hospital always practiced. And he worked in conjunction with Mother Alfred Moes from the Sisters of Saint Francis to make that a reality. They were determined to help everyone regardless of gender, color or religion.

Mayo, maybe more than any other physician, helped transform the bad reputation of hospitals at the time. Often seen as a place to go to die, Mayo was interested in making his hospital a teaching center and a place for new technology; he wanted experts in their fields to visit and share their knowledge and if the patient was poor, he didn’t charge them.

Featuring interviews with patients, including John McCain and the Dalai Lama, the film tells the story of William Worrall Mayo, an English immigrant who began practicing medicine with his sons Will and Charlie in Rochester, Minnesota. Together with the nuns and his sons Will and Charlie, he laid the foundation for a medical center that now treats millions and employs 64,000 people in Rochester and at campuses in Jacksonville, Florida and Scottsdale, Arizona.

When a deadly tornado tore through their small community in 1883, the Mayos took charge of recovery efforts, enlisting the help of the nearby Sisters of Saint Francis to care for patients. Afterwards, Mother Alfred, the leader of the convent, told Dr. Mayo she had a vision from God that instructed her to build a hospital, with him as its director. She believed it would become world renowned for its medical arts.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine, Rochester, MN

Blending historical narrative with contemporary patient stories, The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science is a timely look at how one institution has met the changing demands of healthcare for 150 years and what that can teach us about facing the challenges of patient care today.

The film also follows the stories of patients who have come to the Clinic looking for answers and hope. They include:

  • Charlene Kelly, a patient in Jacksonville, who receives not only confirmation of her diagnosis of myositis, but learns that her symptoms are also due to leukemia. In spite of the daunting news, she finds comfort in finally getting a complete diagnosis and exploring possible treatments
  • Abigail Feenstra, a toddler from Utah who is treated in Scottsdale for a brain tumor using a state-of-the-art proton beam that avoids damaging healthy tissue
  • Karl Schenk, a patient from South Dakota with advanced pancreatic cancer, who doctors treat with a unique combination of surgery and chemotherapy that challenges conventional assumptions about the possibility of long-term remission
Photo Credit: Christopher Loren Ewers
  • Roger Frisch, a concert violinist whose career is threatened by an uncontrollable tremor until a Mayo doctor in Rochester cures it by using experimental deep-brain stimulation.

Through the story of The Mayo Clinic, the film demonstrates the power of collaboration in medicine, the role of humanity in science and the importance of hope in healing. In doing so, it provides insight into ways to make America’s healthcare delivery system more effective, efficient and compassionate.

I had the opportunity to speak with a Shannon Leon, a patient currently in the care of the Mayo Clinic. Over two years, she saw 40 doctors and was admitted 120 times at her local hospital — with no diagnosis. Her liver, kidneys, lungs and heart were failing and she had to be revived seven times. Her doctors were able to keep her alive, but they didn’t know what was wrong and she didn’t have any hope for better health until she sent to the Mayo Clinic.

TV GOODNESS: I wanted to start off by asking when your health problems started and when did you know it was serious?

Shannon Leon: “It started back in 2009 and it was serious [one] morning when I fainted. It was life-threatening that morning.”

TV GOODNESS: I know in the film you talk about how your health problems went on for years, you saw so many doctors and were admitted so many times. When did you know you needed someplace like the Mayo Clinic and what made you decide to go there?

Leon: “Actually, the doctors at [my local hospital], where I go all the time, they didn’t really know what else to do for me. So they referred me to Mayo Clinic because the doctors there and the Mayo Clinic’s more advanced.”

TV GOODNESS: Once you got to the Mayo Clinic, I know you had quite a long consultation. Did you know by the questions your doctor was asking you and how long it went on that they were taking this really seriously and that you might actually get a diagnosis?

Leon: “After doing all kinds of tests throughout the week and then finally seeing one of the doctors at the end of the week, after talking for about 20 minutes he actually thought it was Lupus. That was his diagnosis for me.”

TV GOODNESS: It seems like it took a while to get you to the Mayo Clinic, but once you were there it really seemed like they knew what they were doing and how to help you.

Leon: “Yeah. Yeah, they actually did.”

TV GOODNESS: For patients like you, for someone who’s been struggling with their health and they’ve gotten diagnoses that don’t necessarily make sense for them, what do you think somewhere like the Mayo Clinic does for people?

Leon: “Gives them hope. Gives them a second chance at life. If I didn’t go to the Mayo Clinic, I don’t think the doctors here would’ve figured it out. So, getting the Mayo Clinic’s advice, I think, any person should go.”

TV GOODNESS: It sounds like they gave you the opportunity to live a healthier life, which is always great.

Leon: “It’s not so healthy, but it is getting better.”

Edited for space and content.

The Mayo Clinic premiered Tuesday, September 25th at 9/8c on PBS.

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