Bakken seeks inspirational medical stories


HILO — Imagine being told by your doctor that you have a deadly condition, with only months left to live.

But then, something amazing happens: You receive a miraculous new medical device and are bestowed with another decade or more, to do and say all the things that no doubt flashed through your mind upon learning you were dying.

What would you do with that extra time?

That’s a question that has long preoccupied medical inventor Earl Bakken, who designed, among many life-saving machines, the world’s first wearable, battery-operated pacemaker.

Bakken, who will turn 90 this year, amassed a fortune through his founding and operation of the world’s biggest medical device company, Medtronic Inc., and since retiring to his home in Kiholo Bay on Hawaii Island in 1989, he has donated tens of millions of dollars to Big Island charities, among others.

He is one of the state’s most active and visible philanthropists, and, in a delicious twist of fate, his influence has been extended for years thanks to the very devices that made Bakken a wealthy man. He estimates his life has been extended by more than a decade, having received assistance from two pacemakers, coronary stents, and an insulin pump.

Having faced death and been granted a reprieve, Bakken has dedicated himself to serving other people, and now is asking people like him to do the same.

“While medical technology improves the life of one person at a time, it also creates a social impact that reaches far beyond one patient,” he said. “I’ve been asking the same question for years, ‘What are you going to do with your extra life?’ If medical technology is helping you, as it helps me, then my hope is that one can think of ways, big or small, to give back.”

Now, he and the Medtronic Foundation are looking to recognize 10 inspirational people who, with the help of medical technology, have overcome health challenges and now selflessly give back to their communities. Known as the Bakken Invitation, it is an event that the organizers hope will continue and grow for many years to come, said Susan Pueschel, Bakken’s spokeswoman.

“You know, it’s like an idea that Earl’s been saying for the last couple of years. If you have a dream or a good idea, sometimes it will manifest itself right in front of your eyes, and sometimes you’ve got to keep working at it, keep trying,” she said. “It’s like a pearl, that begins with a grain of sand.”

As a first attempt to recognize outstanding philanthropists, this particular effort is quite a bit more than a grain of sand, however. Each of the 10 winners will be awarded a $20,000 charitable donation and be honored at an awards celebration on the Big Isle as part of the Bakken Invitation. Nominees from around the world will be accepted until June 28. To apply or nominate someone, visit www.LiveOnGiveOn.org. A selection committee will reveiw all nominations, and winners will be announced in August.

To qualify, nominees 14 years or older must use a medical device therapy to treat the following disease categories: heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, spinal disorders, or neurological, gastroenterology and urological disorders. All applicants with eligible medical technology are welcome to apply, regardless of device manufacturer. Applicants must have an established relationship of involvement with a legal non-profit organization for six months or more.

Among the Big Isle charities that Bakken has supported are the North Hawaii Community Hospital, Friends of the Future, Tutu’s House, Earl’s Garage, The Kohala Center, the North Hawaii Outcomes Project, and the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. In 2011, he wrote “A Manifesto for the Future of Hawaii Island,” in which he highlighted three main goals: to free Hawaii Island from dependence on oil, to use the island’s resources as a classroom to further science and technology education, and to continue to work toward making the isle a healthy place for people to live sustainably.

Bakken’s most famous invention, the external, battery-operated pacemaker, was necessitated an Oct. 31, 1957, blackout that affected the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The loss of power at the University of Minnesota Hospitals led to the death of one of the “blue babies” — so-called because of the bluish tinge to their skin as a result of poorly oxygenated blood caused by a heart defect. The next day, Dr. Walton Lillehei contacted Bakken to solve the problem, and one month later he delivered the battery-powered pacemaker.