Earl Bakken — Setting the Pace

A young boy sits in a dark theater staring wide-eyed. Completely fixated, he is entranced by the flickering images of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Gripping the arms of his seat as electricity flashes across the expansive screen with a thunderous clatter, the boy gapes as the creation—and his own imagination—come alive. A dreamer is born.

While other children were roaming the halls of their homes with their arms outstretched in true Frankenstein style, Earl Bakken sat intrigued by a spark of electricity powerful enough to restore life to the unliving. The pulsating images captivated him throughout his childhood, came alive in his dreams, and became the foundation of many inventions. His fascination with electricity and its capacity to create would not only shape his youth, but ultimately his career.

Earl Bakken

Even today, Bakken is no ordinary dreamer. Credited with inventing the world’s first wearable, battery-operated external pacemaker, Bakken helped launch the modern medical-technology industry. Through his leadership of Medtronic, the Fortune 500 company he founded and led until his retirement more than 15 years ago, Bakken has enabled millions of people with life-threatening illnesses to be restored to full life and health.

Now, in his eighth decade, he is pioneering again and creating entirely new forms of healing. A renowned pioneer, engineer and inventor, much of Bakken’s passion lies within the walls of North Hawaii Community Hospital. Opened in 1996 after nearly ten years of planning, the hospital’s mission was to improve the health and wellness of the people of North Hawaii. The vision was that it would become the most healing hospital in the world.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently joined Bakken in Hawaii to tour North Hawaii Community Hospital and to talk about a life that can only be categorized as remarkable. Sitting together at Bakken’s home, they talk about his dreams, his love affair with Hawaii, and keeping good company.

Chet Cooper: Is it true you have a theme song?

Earl Bakken: (laughs) “The Impossible Dream.”

Cooper: And then is it also true that your innovation of numerous life-saving technologies can actually be traced back to the movie Frankenstein?

Bakken: (laughs) When I was nine years old, I went to the movies and saw Frankenstein. That’s what got me interested in electricity. Have you seen it?

Cooper: I saw Young Frankenstein.

(both laugh)

Bakken: The original film has a lot of devices with sparks flying. At the time, I thought, “That’s what I want to be, an electrical engineer. Maybe I’ll work with human bodies.” That stuck for the rest of my life.

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Cooper: Did you first realize your dreams might be coming true when you were working on the pacemaker, or did something click for you earlier?

Bakken: There were a lot of things I dreamed up and then made happen. When I was an adolescent I created a kiss-o-meter. (laughs) I wanted to measure the intensity of kisses. You had a boy and girl each holding onto an electrode as they kissed and it measured intensity.

Cooper: Great way to meet girls, all in the name of science. (Bakken laughs) But, I’m guessing a smart kid like you got picked on by the school bullies?

Bakken: Well, I had made an early taser, like the ones police use. Mine put out 20,000 volts.

Cooper: Did you ever get to use it?

Bakken: (smiles) Once or twice, and they never bothered me again. But I didn’t know what I had. Tasers are now three times as strong, using about 60,000 volts.

Cooper: I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end!

Bakken: (laughs) For sure. These days, I’m excited about bringing along other kids who remind me of the child I was. We have a science bus for kids that travels around. It’s called the Just-Think-Mobile. And in Earl’s Garage, another of my programs, we help children get into electronics. We also have a young inventor’s workshop. Hopefully some of the kids will eventually turn into engineers. That’s how I got started. I created Medtronic in an 800-square-foot garage and now we have many millions of square feet.

Earl’s garage in Minneapolis
Earl’s garage in Minneapolis

Cooper: Your early inspiration came from a movie, and you’ve said your ideas now come to you in your dreams?

Bakken: Let me tell you a little about my dreams. They come to me momentarily after the lights go out at night and I’m in bed. My mind starts going. I like to write them down to remember them in the morning.

Cooper: In my process, I don’t want to necessarily wake up. I think that if my dream is so brilliant, I’ll remember it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But your dreams come before you get to sleep?

Bakken: Yes, and that’s the only way I can drift off, by getting them out.

Cooper: Each person has cycles of energy. Some people are “morning people” and some are “night people.” My patterns are all related to caffeine.

Bakken: (laughs) Mine, too. Want some coffee?

Cooper: (laughs) You have this love affair with electricity, but you were also interested in sound waves?

Bakken: In the ‘30s I wanted to figure out how radios worked. I’d take them apart and then put them together again. Though I never went on the air transmitting as an amateur, I do have all the best radios in the world in terms of reception. I can receive broadcasts from all over the world.

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Cooper: Do you have a radio room?

Bakken: Oh, yeah. And I have the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in Minneapolis, which covers the history of radio. It covers radios from the turn of the century—the crystal detection set. Of course, crystal radio doesn’t require any power if you have local stations that are strong enough. I had a crystal set built into my bed so I could listen with the lights out after my parents thought I was asleep. I like old-time radio like Amos ‘n’ Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly.

During the war, it became known that I had a first-class, radio-telephone license that I had gotten when I was 17, and they automatically made me a radar instructor. I taught airborne, high-altitude bombing radar for three years.

Cooper: But your career ultimately flew off in another direction… (Bakken laughs) As a company president you’ve lead thousands, but you’re actually more of an introvert?

Bakken: I was a typical introvert and didn’t like public speaking, but in my business I had to do it. I didn’t like flying, but I had to do it. Some things you do, even if it isn’t your nature.

Cooper: Do you have any secrets that get you through public speaking?

Bakken: I have something that gets their attention at the beginning. It depends on the speech, but it has to be something that goes along with the aloha feeling of getting the people close to you.

Cooper: You make an emotional connection right off?

Bakken: You want them to be listening to you, and then you have all the rules: You want to “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

Cooper: A number of your newer ideas regarding health seem to be inspired by your surroundings.

Earl Bakken

Bakken: It all comes back to Hawaii. There are seven organizations here in Hawaii that I’m very involved with, all attending to the health of the people. I have a community-health organization called Five Mountains Hawaii that targets a lot of local issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse. We’ve also begun to measure community health in every way you can think of, including automobile accidents.

Cooper: What are some of your findings?

Bakken: Well, for instance, we have a report that says students that don’t finish high school experience an extremely high death-rate in future years. If they do finish high school, those rates drop a little. If they get a year of college or trade school, those rates drop by half. And that’s U.S. figures, not just the Big Island. We try hard to encourage parents to be sure their children get at least 13 years of schooling. Somehow it awakens the child’s brain to look at life more positively.

Cooper: How are you trying to change these statistics locally?

Bakken: We have a lot of activities for kids. Altogether I have about seven programs, including Earl’s Garage, which introduces kids to basic electronics and mechanics. We have classes at an astronomy center in Hilo, and we teach the Hawaiian language, starting with children three and four years old. Years back some Americans tried to wipe out that language, now we’re reviving it.

We also have a canoe project. Makalii is a two-hulled canoe that’s built in the same way the original ones were built for the Hawaiians who arrived in 700 A.D. They learned to sail the Pacific by navigating by the stars, by the wave and bird formations, and by their own intuition. We take 20 kids out on 10-day trips similar to an Outward Bound experience. They have no cabins or toilets, and they have to prepare their own food.

Cooper: So you’re bringing them back to the days before videogames and cell phones?

Bakken: Exactly. They have nothing to guide them other than the stars. Of course, they have a radio if they get in real trouble. But generally they find their way as they learn about how their ancestors first arrived on these shores in much the same manner. It can be a very rough trip, especially if they run into a storm. They come back from this adventure very changed.

Cooper: Why did you choose Hawaii, and specifically the Big Island?

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Bakken: As I was nearing retirement from Medtronic, my wife and I decided to move to a place that was warmer than Minnesota. We began looking at islands around the world: the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, the South Seas and Tahiti. My wife’s father was a postmaster in Hague, North Dakota, and as a child she’d seen postcards of the Hawaiian Islands. I think those early images nudged us in this direction.

When we finally got to Hawaii we began to look at which of the Islands we liked the best. We fell in love with the Big Island and built our home about 10 miles north of Kona Village, where there were no telephones, no TVs—nothing to disturb the silence and beauty. Later, we ended up getting computers and telephones. The latter is by a microwave link up the mountain. We generate our own electricity, make our own water, have our own sewer.

Cooper: So you’re “off the grid.”

Bakken: (laughs) We make our own grid! We have three generators and they’re really running well. As long as we can get propane to run the generators, we do fine. Of course, we’re actively seeking alternative-energy sources to reduce our dependency on Mid-East oil, at least for our island.

Cooper: What results has your alternative-energy research yielded?

Bakken: We’re looking at biodiesel—plants that produce fuel—and all the ways we can convert wind, solar and other power sources. We’re exploring the potential in methyl hydride—ice that’s got methane gas trapped in it. There are massive quantities of it in oceans around the world and it can be mined fairly easily, but it’s still a fossil fuel, so it’ll produce carbon dioxide. We’re also looking at soybeans as a fuel source and a new and improved system of converting solar energy.

That’s one of the advantages we have as an island. We’re smaller and more self-contained, and we can really push hard to get it off oil. We have two big wind farms generating energy already. It’s harder to move as quickly on the mainland.

Cooper: You have helped create a hospital far different from what most people have ever encountered.

Bakken: North Hawaii Community Hospital is very different than any other hospital in the world. It has 63 things that make it different….

Cooper: I really think you have to find one more. Sixty-four is a nice, even number.

Bakken: (laughs) I’ll think of one more. The hospital is broken up into things that affect the body, mind, spirit, nature, and community—it’s what we call “blended medicine.” It has three major components: high tech, high touch and environment.

In terms of high tech, we have all the latest equipment including MRI, CAT scanner and we’re currently digitizing our patient records. We combine that with high-touch: loving and caring for our patients, knowing them by name and not just by their disease, and we include complementary healing modalities, such as: qi qong, chiropractic care, massage and acupuncture, each tailored to the person.

Finally, it’s important to have a healing environment, including elements such as skylights. Because of chronobiology—the rhythms of the body—we need to synchronize with the sun every day to be normal. We also have windows in our operating rooms to keep people synchronized and every room opens to the outside. Have you ever seen that in a hospital? In most, environment is so often forgotten.

Cooper: Did you consider aesthetics, such as colors and patterns?

Bakken: Everything, including the mounting of the art, is done according to feng shui rules of the Far East. We have tea plants in the corners of all the buildings to keep bad energy from entering the hospital. We also have bamboo forests outside and some bamboo in the chapel. Rather than being one room in the hospital as is so often the case, our chapel is out on an expansion by itself. It has beautiful colored windows and is oriented so that it points directly to the Kohala Mountains and Mauna Kea, because of the gods that Hawaiians worship on those mountains.

Cooper: It didn’t feel like a hospital.

Bakken: You don’t smell it. All the doors let in the mountain air. Everything about the hospital is different in order to make it more patient friendly.

Cooper: What’s the ratio of nurse to patient?

Bakken: About six patients per nurse. Yet many facilities out there have 10 and 12 patients to one nurse, but a nurse can’t adequately care that many people at once.

The Hawaiians believe very much in lokihei as a healing way of living. Lokihei means balance, not going extreme in any direction. We have a mural in the hallway, showing the complementary doctor on this side and the scientific doctor on the other side, but more often we find the same person on both sides. You can see they’re in the canoe, heading for a brighter horizon, under the guidance of the star Lakali’I. This is the mission that we’re here for, “patient-centered care.” Our goal is to become the most healing hospital in the world.

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Cooper: Have you ever thought of using this as a model to bring in hospital administrators, to let them see your facility with its high-tech, high-touch and environmental components?

Bakken: We have people from all over the world coming here to see what we’re doing.

Cooper: You’ve created a hospital that is a sanctuary for healing.

Bakken: One of the most important components is our Ohana Room. “Ohana” means “family.” If families want to get out of the patient’s room for a while, they can go there and lie down on the couches. There’s also a full kitchen, where the family can have a meal together there, as they do at home. It has a piano that a family member can play, because music is extremely important to the health of Hawaiian people.

Cooper: To everyone.

Bakken: To anyone… I try to convince everybody their job is to help heal patients, which makes a difference in the way people do their work. Even the housekeepers clean meticulously because that is their role in helping to heal patients.

The housekeepers come around in the morning with hot towels. They’ll offer them to the doctors and nurses who’ve been on call all night to wipe their face and hands before they go off duty at seven o’clock. After you’ve been up all night, it’s good to wipe your face and feel the refreshment of peppermint or lavender aromatherapy. A simple little thing, but it makes a big difference in people’s lives that someone cares enough to bring a hot towel.

Even the cooks. They’re not just cooking, they’re creating healing nourishment for the patients. If someone comes in who’s had an argument at home, the head chef won’t let them cook.

Cooper: The negative energy.

Bakken: Yes. We pass out medallions to every employee. It’s got our mission statement on the back in Hawaiian. It says, “We paddle the canoe together, paddle and bail, bail and paddle. Together we reach the distant shore.”

Cooper: You need to push the concept of this hospital. I don’t even know if you want to call it a hospital. It seems like you should find another word.

Bakken: We’d like another word, but we have to fit into the model.

Earl Bakken and Jerry Lewis
Earl Bakken and Jerry Lewis

Cooper: In regard to the Bakken Heart-Brain Institute and the research you’ve lead, which areas stand out most to you?

Bakken: We’re doing many studies, but the body is so complex that we don’t begin to claim we understand everything. So much of what we do in traditional medicine has never really been tested either, and we’ve never found out exactly how things work. We just do it because doctors have always done it, and they continue to teach the same methods over and over in medical schools. And then they turn around and complain that complementary medicine’s never been tested.

Cooper: Not many know complementary medicine.

Bakken: There are more than you think. The University of Minnesota has a medical school and the dean is very holistic. In their senior year 12 students are sent down here to go through complementary healing methods and to try yoga and healing touch. They go back and tell the dean this was the best three weeks of their medical career. If people get enough of this type of training, they will learn to treat their patients as human beings rather than just as bodies gone bad.

One student later told me that he went into medical school because he wanted to help people, and while in medical school he lost that focus. Everything was directed at medicine and diagnosing. Our program changed his whole perception of what medical school should be like. I think it creates more empathy in the new doctors.

Cooper: But it’s such a limited number students. I think there’s a huge need in the world to have more environments like this. Does it cost more to be treated in your hospital, compared to other facilities?

Bakken: It’s essentially no different; it can’t be. The systems no longer pay what it costs to do health care procedures. We have to supplement by seeking grants and gifts. We depend a lot on philanthropy to cover the costs, but we’re doing it.

Cooper: You have diabetes and you’re managing your own health care… and now you’re making a movie about people who are learning to manage theirs?

Bakken: Some people just blast their bodies in every negative way they know how – smoking, eating the wrong foods, abusing alcohol. Our movie is the reverse of Supersize Me. We did a live-well program and took 25 patients who were not in good shape and put them into a program where they eat better and exercise, and we weave in elements of Hawaiian culture into it.

Many of the first 25 people were diabetic with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They were monitored weekly and a few of the diabetics were actually able to come off of their insulin. A lot of them lost a lot of weight. One man had a cholesterol of 325 and three weeks later he had it down to about 130.

Cooper: Three weeks?

Bakken: In three weeks, just by eating right and exercising consistently.

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Cooper: As we’re talking about diabetes, it reminded me, I brought you some cookies. This product is called 50/50 because 50 percent of the proceeds goes to diabetic research. The cookies are made with NutraSweet. I hope I didn’t eat them all…

Bakken: (laughs) Thanks.

Cooper: Do you personally use Medtronic products?

Bakken: In terms of our products, I use a pacemaker and an insulin pump. And I have stints in my heart. I’ll be putting on a sensor shortly that senses my blood sugar every five minutes and telemeters that information back to the pump.

Cooper: A pseudo-pancreas…

Bakken: It’s what the pump and pancreas do together that’s so marvelous. With my pump, I practically have an external pancreas. If you don’t get your rate down to a reasonable range, you start having organ failure or vision problems.

We have thousands of people here on the Big Island who let it get out of control, and they’ve had to have their feet amputated, or they’re blind. And that’s nonsense. Even kids can wear this. I had two girls come into my office one day, ages 10 and 13. They were on pumps and they said, “You know, Mr. Bakken, the greatest thing about pumps is that we can sleep over.” That’s a big thing with girls, to sleep over at a friend’s house and talk all night. They couldn’t do it before, when they had to inject, or their parents were injecting them. With the pumps, it does it all automatically.

Cooper: This is the perfect example of the lack of certain socialization that goes hand in hand with certain disabilities: Two girls who can’t spend the night at each other’s homes because of treatment obstacles. So with the pump, you’re helping them to preserve their childhood. Is the data from the pump relayed to your health care provider?

Bakken: When we were on clinical trials, we broadcast it over the Internet. It’s all digital. If the blood sugar gets too high or too low, it’ll beep or vibrate, and you’ll know something is wrong.

Cooper: It’s sending out a signal saying, “Please do something.”

Bakken: That’s right.

Cooper: Do you feel as though you have instilled similar person-first emphasis within Medtronic as you have at the hospital?

Bakken: Medtronic puts lots of money into charities, such as Second Harvest, which combats hunger, and into helping people in health programs.

Earl Bakken and Chet Cooper
Earl Bakken and Chet Cooper with a traditional Hawaiian greeting

We had one sales meeting recently in Phoenix, and the man running it said, “We’re going to have a contest for you salespeople to see who’s the fastest.” He had bicycle parts in cartons. He had about a hundred sales persons there, and he broke them into teams of two to test which team could get the bicycles assembled correctly and quickly. Everyone thought it was a real contest. They all went to work and assembled bicycles. When they were done, the doors of the room opened and a hundred kids came in. Each was directed to a team that had his or her bicycle. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. The first mission, and the main one, is helping people.

Cooper: Anyone mention to you that you’re not a typical engineer? Engineers are usually described as “thinkers,” and yet you have this massive “feeling” side.

Bakken: Well—so much of medicine is treating the body, and I want them to treat the whole person. I want doctors to think about this heart-brain medicine. I’ve been dreaming about it for 30 years.

For the patient, it’s a way of getting the body back in one piece, because so many doctors are trained organ by organ, and we don’t have organs. They don’t exist. It’s parts of the body, and the whole body works together. When the heart beats, it affects the whole body.

Cooper: As we get better at understanding what health is, we’re all living longer. I think what we once believed to be high standards just a generation ago have been outdistanced.

Bakken: One of my granddaughters wants to go to medical school and be a pediatrician. She just graduated with a degree in marine biology from the School of the Atlantic in Maine. In a senior paper she wrote on alternative medicine she said it was her grandfather’s work that got her started on this path. Her conclusion is, after doing a heavy study on ‘alternative’ medicine, we should drop the adjective….

Cooper: …and just call it ‘medicine.’

Bakken: Exactly.


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