The Unexplored Faith in Ken Burns’s ‘The Mayo Clinic’

Film relates the role of faith in the prestigious hospital founding but remains quiet about patients’ own beliefs.
The Unexplored Faith in Ken Burns’s ‘The Mayo Clinic’
Image: Courtesy of Saint Mary's Hospital Archives, Rochester, MN / PBS

An immigrant doctor. A deadly 1883 tornado. And the unlikely partnership of a determined Franciscan Sister who had a vision from God to build a world-renowned hospital and the agnostic English physician who championed Darwin.

"How have I not heard this incredible story until now?!" I wondered during my first visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, during a cold week in February 2010.

It had all the makings of a movie.

Clearly, Ken Burns felt the same way.

The prolific documentarian, captivated by the story while a Mayo patient, captures 150 years of Mayo Clinic history and stories in two hours in his latest film, The Mayo Clinic: Faith-Hope-Science.

As a Minnesotan living an hour from the top-ranked hospital system in the US, I've visited what has become a medical mecca for patients from 50 states and 150 countries on numerous occasions, supporting family members undergoing surgery and tests.

Having seen all 29 of Burns’s films, I was thrilled to see this distinctly American—and dare I say, Minnesotan—story, told by “America’s Storyteller” for a national audience on PBS last week. While unable to compete with the epic length of The Civil War, Baseball, or Jazz, The Mayo Clinic flows like an expression of gratitude, a praiseworthy hat tip from the filmmaker.

Backed by Burns’s teams, talent and toolkit, the film unpacks Mayo’s remarkable origin story and its enduring legacy of faith and science—a union guided both by the primary value the elder Dr. William Worrall Mayo instilled in his sons: “The needs of the patient come first,” along with the Sisters of St. Francis who taught nurses “to treat every patient like Jesus Christ.”

What about the patients’ faith?

While the film sheds light on the role of faith from the influence of the Sisters, it did not explore how the faith of patients may play a role in their journey and outcomes. (It is only hinted at in a story of a pregnant patient with eye cancer who declined elective termination.)

Roger Frisch, a patient whose brain surgery experience at Mayo is featured in the film, said, “Throughout this whole adventure, faith has been incredibly important,” adding that he spoke openly about his Christian faith during four hours of filming in Minneapolis.

A concert violinist, Frisch has been the subject of media interviews since a 2010 brain operation during which he remained awake to play the violin while neurosurgeon Kendall Lee performed Deep Brain Stimulation—inserting wires into his thalamus in an attempt to still a tremor that threatened to end his lifelong career with the Minnesota Orchestra.

“There were 300 people praying for me during that surgery,” said Roger. “I think that’s why this surgery was so successful. There’s no way you can convince me otherwise. I’m a living example of a 100 percent successful surgery. That’s truly an answer to prayer.”

Frisch admitted he was “very frustrated and very scared” yet surrendered to God. “That constant discussion back and forth [with God], those are my ideas of prayers, was Find me an answer. And if this is it, you’ll show me what else to do with my life.”

“The surgery was just another layer of evidence that God is with us,” added Roger’s wife Michele, principal flute for the Minnesota Opera. “[It] wasn’t to save Roger’s life, but it was absolutely to save the quality of his life.”

Roger, who retired last month after 45 years, and Michele have a combined 80 years of playing and performing, and taught for over 20 years each as artists-in-residence at the University of Northwestern–St. Paul. They said they were comfortable discussing their faith with his doctors at Mayo, many of whom have become friends and are believers as well.

In the film, Roger plays a piece by Bach, serving as a testament to the success of the surgery and soundtrack to his story, which Burns requested.

The Frisches’ love for music ministry has taken them around the world, a ministry they will continue in the time that his retirement affords. They also performed together at the Mayo Clinic’s 150th-anniversary celebration.

Giving back to Mayo is important to Roger. “People call me about their tremors,” he said. “Pilots and racecar drivers, people in high-risk professions. They want to speak to someone who has experienced it firsthand. I spend as much time as they need. I see it as a ministry. I love doing it. It’s the least I can do.”

Embracing a faith legacy, respecting diversity

While it missed patients’ own faith, the documentary focused on the Mayo Clinic’s commitment to its patients-first foundation. Today, remaining true to their values while embracing the diversity of their patients is important to the organization, according to Bob Brown, a neurologist with 35 years at Mayo and head of the Mayo Values Council.

“We consider these Mayo Franciscan values at the foundation, no matter what one believes … regarding spirituality [or] religion,” he said in an interview. “Because what it does is guide you in doing the right thing for your patients at the right time and being your absolute best in terms of compassion, empathy, and striving for excellence.”

Putting patients first also means respecting different spiritual backgrounds. For example, at Mayo’s Saint Mary’s Hospital, though not a Catholic-licensed hospital, every room bears a cross on the wall. Brown explained if a patient requests it be removed from their personal room, it is done without fuss.

“We’re respectful of that patient’s perspective as we respect their physical, emotional needs,” he said.

From his first two-hour appointment, Roger said he benefited from the patients-first difference at Mayo. “It’s not a philosophy that’s flippantly written down on a plaque someplace. The basis is this ‘faith, hope, and science.’”

While the Mayo Clinic has no institutional data on the role of faith in patient outcomes, Brown acknowledged it’s an intriguing question. “There’s an increasing call for research to consider: What is the role of spirituality when it connects to outcomes in medicine?”

Balancing triumph and failure

The Mayo model certainly contributes to positive outcomes. Last year a study showed 88 percent of patients seeking a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic receive a new or revised diagnosis.

This was true for my mother twice. In 2010, she arrived with a previous diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer that had spread to her lung and liver. Diagnostics and procedures at Mayo showed there was, in fact, no cancer in the liver or lungs, and reduced her to Stage 2, eliminating the need for unnecessary surgeries, changing the treatment plan and improved her prognosis dramatically.

But not all outcomes at Mayo end triumphantly. As the film neared its conclusion, I wondered, would it only portray doctors as miracle-working gods? Would it make Mayo into a savior of sorts, usurping the position of the Great Physician? (Heroes, yes; gods, no.)

It did take several minutes to explore its imperfections, limitations, and even failures. Doctors share vulnerably about their personal “graveyard” of patients whose lives were unable to be saved.

The late Sen. John McCain also reflects on his care at Mayo, accepting his own terminal illness. And a narrator reads a poignant letter from a young patient who passed away, grateful for the extra time Mayo gave her.

The Mayo effect in media

The Mayo model appears to have touched entertainment as well, adding to our national healthcare conversations on national television.

Premiering the same night as The Mayo Clinic, NBC’s medical drama New Amsterdam seems to have pulled from the Mayos’ patients-first playbook. Inspired by true events in the book Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital—the same historic New York hospital where the elder Dr. Mayo began his first job as a pharmacist—the docudrama centers around an unorthodox medical director determined to change a broken system.

Just as Burns’s signature style, coined “the Ken Burns effect,” influenced video production, perhaps “the Mayo Effect” will continue to influence art as well as life.

If it does, no doubt Brown and his more than 60,000 Mayo colleagues would welcome it. “If the generations that follow me at Mayo Clinic look back in 50 years and see we are the same values-driven organization that we were in 2018,” he said, “then we will have done our job and we will have shepherded this carefully considered culture forward in the next generation. That’s the legacy we need to leave for the colleagues that follow us.”

Jenny Collins, MA, is a freelance copywriter with a master’s degree in holistic health studies and founder of Jenetic Communications. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and also writes at HolisticGPS.com.

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