Earl Bakken: Providing ‘extra life’ to millions

  • Dr. Earl Bakken — the inventor of the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker nearly 60 years ago — still works every day. (COURTESY PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Two young employees from Medtronic in Minneapolis come to show Dr. Bakken the latest Carelink monitoring system, now app-based, that he can use on his iPad to send reports directly from his pacemaker to his cardiologist in Minneapolis. (COURTESY PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON)
  • Dr. Earl Bakken enjoys a healthy and vital lifestyle in Hawaii. (COURTESY PHOTO BY SARAH ANDERSON/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Now in his ninth decade, Dr. Earl Bakken is the epitome of living life to the fullest.

The inventor of the world’s first external, battery-powered pacemaker — a device that has enabled millions of people to extend their lives — moved to Hawaii more than 25 years ago and is by any measure one of North Hawaii’s most renowned residents.

And though he’d be quick to argue, there’s truly not much more he could do that he hasn’t done in his 92.5 years on the planet.

Just about every story that could be written about him has been written and every documentary produced. And, he has been honored with more than 60 awards during the past three decades.

So, one could easily understand if all he wanted to do was spend every day in a hammock at his Kohala Coast estate.

But that’s so not him.

Bakken still works every day, and is currently championing a philanthropic initiative that has him as excited as he’s been about any project since his retirement, with the possible exception of North Hawaii Community Hospital, which he helped found in 1996.

Bakken retired in 1989 as senior chairman of the board of Medtronic Inc., the medical technology company he and his brother-in-law founded 67 years ago. His latest endeavor is aptly named “The Bakken Invitation,” not just because it was his idea but because it is personal to him. It is simple and straightforward, yet has potential to benefit millions.

Here’s how it works: People who have benefited from a medical electronic device are invited to participate in a program called, “Live On. Give On.” The initiative challenges device recipients to do something with the “extra life” they were given by giving back to society.

Each year, 10 people are selected for the Bakken Invitation Award, which recognizes extraordinary accomplishments. Each of the honorees earn a $20,000 grant from the Medtronic Foundation to be given to their designated charity, and a trip to Hawaii to meet Bakken.

Criteria for the award include the applicant giving time to improve the quality of life for someone else using an approved medical device therapy to treat one or more of a variety of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes or neurological disorders, and having an established record of involvement with a nonprofit organization.

To have a program titled “Live On. Give On.” could not be more appropriate for a man who has devoted his life to giving. Bakken has supported, with both time and money, a large number of programs in Hawaii and Minnesota.

Notable Hawaii organizations include NHCH, The Kohala Center, Friends of the Future including Tutu’s House and Earl’s Garage, Na Kalai Waa, and its voyaging canoe, the Makalii.

Twenty years ago, NHCH opened in Waimea due in large part to Bakken’s vision and leadership. In January 2014, it became part of The Queen’s Health Systems and he thinks that’s a good thing.

“I’m very pleased,” Bakken said. “NHCH goes way back with Queen’s to the beginning of the hospital, and people may not be aware Queen’s actually gave $1 million for the construction of the hospital and has always been a friend and important associate.”

Bakken says he’s most proud of the integrative medicine at NHCH, and, of course, the care the hospital makes available for more than 30,000 people in North Hawaii.

He is also proud of The Kohala Center and the work it’s doing, including planting trees, helping farmers and growing school gardens. And all the programs and initiatives led by Friends of the Future are just “incredible,” he said.

“I’m particularly fond of Tutu’s House and Earl’s Garage. Every one of their programs is vital,” Bakken reflected.

Recently retired Matthew Hamabata, Ph.D., founding president and CEO of The Kohala Center, feels blessed and honored to have had Bakken as his employer, friend and mentor.

“Earl is a spectacular person, not just for his philanthropy and creativity but especially for his belief in island people, that we can determine our own futures and in so doing, achieve great things. This was particularly inspiring for me, as someone who grew up in plantation Hawaii, in a place and time in which little was expected from local people,” he said.

Bakken supported the founding of The Kohala Center in 2000, after a community-wide survey revealed that island residents did not want social services to address dire community health challenges. Instead, community members wanted greater educational opportunities, meaningful and financially rewarding work and a diversified economy, Hamabata said.

“Earl encouraged me to listen to Native Hawaiian leaders who said that we should attend to those aspirations by building aina-based programs for community well-being. And as we met those community aspirations, The Kohala Center grew and keeps on growing,” he added. “There is no clearer evidence that, by being island-rooted and always pushing for excellence, our achievements can be world-class. That, in my mind, is Dr. Bakken’s legacy.”

Friends of the Future’s Executive Team Leader Susan Maddox remembers meeting Bakken in January 1996, a few days after she joined Friends of the Future. She recalls Bakken, and the late Kenny Brown, founder of Friends of the Future, sharing their inspiring and compelling vision of what they hoped for the island.

“Earl has maintained that same sense of vision, possibilities and inspiration during all the ensuing years,” she said. “It is an honor and a blessing to consider him a personal mentor and friend. He continues to dream big, inspire those around him and cause us all to grow and stretch in service to Hawaii.”

It’s difficult for the average person to comprehend the full impact Bakken and Medtronic products have had on the world, but it’s not hard for a device recipient. Ron Brown, a Minnesotan in his 70s and now on his seventh pacemaker, has no trouble expounding on what it means to him.

“If it were not for Earl Bakken and his vision, I would not be around to enjoy my family,” said Brown, who received his first pacemaker at age 34. “I live in the present. I am grandpa to my grandkids and I am not a fading picture in a photo album.”

Bakken himself has a pacemaker, so his own invention is allowing him to extend his healthy and vital life in Hawaii.

“The best, and most spiritual place for me right now is home,” he said. “We live near the ocean surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers and always, the sound of the waves.”

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