Jenny Collins: The Unexplored Faith in Ken Burns’s ‘The Mayo Clinic’

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 WarBaseball, or JazzThe 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.”

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Source: Christianity Today