“Earl Bakken was a man and a legend.” So wrote integrative medicine philanthropist Penny George in a e-note following news that the founder of the now $27-billion Medtronic had died at 94 in his home on his beloved island of Hawaii. “Earl is also a testament to integrative care. He accumulated a number of serious health problems with which most people would not have lived that long. But he combined the benefit of the devices his company created with acupuncture and massage and a great diet and the power of meaning and purpose to live as long and as healthy a life as one could imagine.”
Bakken’s death stimulated a lengthy obituary in the Washington Post that tells the remarkable story of the humble beginnings of this engineer and electronics repairman. The Post did not mention Bakken’s passion for integrative medicine that newspapers closer to his Hawaiian home featured in their write-ups. Bakken both lived and philanthropically promoted a vision for a blended, “high touch-high tech” medicine.
Over two decades ago,Bakken helped legitimize the field by making the vision of this new kind of integrative care into in a national exemplar. His creation of the North Hawaii Community Hospital in the mid-1990s drew news accounts from thousands of miles away. He melded an optimal healing environment design – before that concept was coined – with a natural setting, windows that opened to breezes, and multiple forward-thinking touches to assist patients and their families during the arduous times of hospitalization. To these Bakken sought to create clinical services that blended multiple natural healing modalities and professionals with regular treatment. He envisioned and had implemented, for example, an in-hospital natural products formulary.
Bakken’s fellow Big Island resident Michael Traub, ND, FABNO was given a lead role in developing the integrative practice part of the hospital’s services, and the green pharmacy that would support it. Traub, who was also a part of Bakken’s personal care team for many years, including at the end of life, reflects on how the inventor “touched hundreds of thousands of people with his high tech and high touch – his example inspires similar numbers of us who knew him and who work in health care to broaden our reach and influence beyond those in our immediate circle.”
Traub has shared elsewhere that Bakken’s integrative services vision proved to be ahead of the mindsets of much of the medical staff at the hospital in the mid-1990s. Implementation of the integrative model was slowed. Contacted for this article, Traub shared a poignant recent moment: “I will always remember his last words to me: ‘You look like you have so much joy in your heart.’ My reply was, ‘So do you Earl, so do you.’”
Through Traub, in 2005 Bakken became one of the two most significant philanthropic partners of a founding interprofessional event for the emerging integrative health and medicine field, the 12-discipline National Education Dialogue to Advance Integrated Care: Creating Common Ground. As a principal in that initiative, I had a chance to meet with Bakken in his home office. I received from him a copy of his autobiography that tells his extraordinary story. One could feel how the spirit of the islands seemed to surround and infuse him.
While the Big Island was his main home at the end of his life, he maintained strong ties to his Minnesota roots where Medtronic is based. Philanthropist Penny George, whose spouse Bill George guided Medtronic to huge growth after Bakken stepped down, spoke of Bakken’s contributions to his home city:
“He created an industry that sustains Minnesota to this day, as well as a singular company that restores people to full lives every second. He was a visionary decades ahead of his time who was wise enough to pass on leadership of that company to those who could take it to the next level. Till he retired and moved to Hawaii, he met with every employee (including Bill when he was hired as COO), to impress upon them the importance of their serving the mission. He always ended by handing out the Medtronic medallion printed with the mission. His was a life well lived.”
That city was also the home to one of the longest-running integrative centers in the United States which in 2017 became known as the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing. Center founder and director Mary Jo Kreitzer, RN, PhD, FAAN offered a portrait of a man with “a love for humanity that had no bounds and an insatiable curiosity.” She shared this personal account of being mentored by Bakken:
“Very early in the Center’s history, Earl’s office contacted me and said he wanted to meet with me to learn more about the Center. I had no idea what to expect in this encounter and was more than a little anxious. I recall that Earl was less interested in hearing about what we were doing and intending to do at the Center and was more interested in getting to know who I was as a person. This was the beginning of a deep friendship and mentoring relationship that has spanned over two decades.
“As I reflect on our relationship, I am struck by several things. Earl asked many questions, but never told me what he thought we should be doing. He opened the door for me to have experiences, but never attempted to control the outcome of what might happen. He urged me to read widely and glean insights from many different fields. It was not unusual to enter his office and see a large stack of journals with sticky notes protruding, highlighting articles that he wanted to talk about and thought I should read. He was a conscientious curator of all that was happening in the world, and brought my attention to ideas that I should be aware of. Many times, I had the experience of discovering – months or years later – why he wanted me to learn about something. What deeply touches me as I reflect on this is the way that he invested in my learning and success. He cared about the Center and about me as a person. What is remarkable is the everyday occurrence this was in Earl’s life. He undoubtedly mentored hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Penny George shares an intimate story from her relationship with Bakken: “When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember that he sent me a bunch of books. Doris, his wife, had been diagnosed a bit earlier than me and I remember he encouraged her to deal with it through surgery but then lifestyle medicine (macrobiotic diet, etc.) instead of chemo. He opened my eyes to the fact that chemo was not essential. I decided to do chemo anyway since it was not the most harsh kind but really put my attention on the lifestyle factors ever since. Doris, by the way, is doing fine.” (Bakken is survived by his spouse.)
Medtronic, with its 6-pronged mission that Bakken established, to “alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life” – and with its call to “recognize the personal worth of employees” and to be a “good citizen” balancing a focus on “a fair profit” – presently has 86,000 employees worldwide. The Medtronic website is a compelling altar to Bakken and his contributions.