KAILUA-KONA — As an electrical engineer who made groundbreaking technological advancements in the field of medicine, Dr. Earl Bakken saved, prolonged and changed lives. As a prolific philanthropist, particularly on Hawaii Island, he improved them.
The billionaire inventor of the battery-operated pacemaker in late 1957 and co-founder of the biomedical firm Medtronic retired from Minnesota to Hawaii Island, where he died Sunday at the age of 94.
Those who knew him well say his legacy will live on in both the institutions he helped construct and carry, as well as in the people he lifted up through his gift for technology and proclivity for generosity.
“I am who I am and have been able to live the life I’ve lived because of that man,” said Nancy Stephenson, a retired critical care nurse who worked at Medtronic for 32 years and now resides on Hawaii Island. “And there are thousands of us, thousands, who can say the same thing.”
Not just another hospital
Bakken’s greatest imprint on life across the Big Island combined his vision for a different sort of health facility in North Hawaii, which before didn’t have one at all, and the financial support he put behind it.
Stephenson believes the mere presence of the North Hawaii Community Hospital (NHCH) where it stands today has saved several lives. The golden hour, or the first 60 minutes after a heart attack or stroke, is absolutely crucial for the treatment of the critically-ill and their potential outcomes. Before NHCH, treatment in Hilo and Kona were each an hour away.
Cindy Kamikawa, president of NHCH, said Bakken donated at least $10-$15 million to the institution over the last 22 years. But his influence on the design of the facility has perhaps proven more meaningful than even the money that backed it.
“He had that vision of high-touch, high-tech,” she said. “And the hospital design reflects it today.”
Dr. Neal Shikuma, a cardiologist and internist who practices on Hawaii Island and Oahu, described Bakken as a friend, mentor and even a patient.
They first met at the University of Southern California in 1980 and their relationship grew from there. Shikuma recalled an American Heart Association Meeting in New Orleans in 1991 where Bakken showed him a rendering of the medical center that would become NHCH published on the front of the Waimea Gazette.
“He told me, ‘Neal, this is the future of medicine,’” Shikuma remembered.
Patient rooms face the outside. The hallways are wide. There are windows in the operating room. Natural lighting is prominently featured by way of skylights throughout the facility, as well as full-length sliding doors in each room opening onto patios so patients can sit outside.
Stephenson added that 90 percent of rooms are single-occupancy.
“This hospital was physically constructed for healing, incorporating the environment,” Shikuma said. “No other hospital in the world is like it.”
Bakken’s vision was inspired not only to enhance the patient experience in any way possible, but out of his own personal taste, Stephenson explained.
“He hated traditional hospitals,” she said. “And that’s why he didn’t want to die in one.”
Bakken’s generosity and concern for Waimea, and all of North Hawaii, didn’t stop with NHCH.
Patti Cook, president of the Waimea Community Association, listed a host of different community initiatives Bakken either spearheaded, supported or kept alive.
He contributed significantly to the nonprofit, Friends of the Future, which engages in multiple charitable endeavors in North Hawaii.
He also offered support to Na Kalai Waa, another nonprofit that restored the Makali‘i Canoe and developed the Makali‘i Voyaging Family. Na Kalai Wa‘a lists its purpose as “the maintenance of cultural values and customs through the teaching and application of non-instrument navigation and open-ocean voyaging.”
Bakken was instrumental in the Tutu House, a health and wellness project also under the umbrella of Friends of the Future, which serves as a gathering house with surrounding grounds where community organizations like support groups or children’s programs can meet free of charge.
He also supported leadership training groups and helped start the Kohala Center.
“Everything Dr. Bakken did was about wellness, but it wasn’t just about healing a wound or solving a heart problem,” Cook said. “It was also about community health and wellbeing.”
“The Kohala Center is about a thriving, sustainable economy and environment,” she continued. “About connecting them with health and wellbeing so you have jobs and job training and people being able to afford to live here and work and raise families.”
Bakken’s company and much of his life were based in Minnesota. It wasn’t until he was already late in years that Bakken decided to make Hawaii Island his home, then chose to invest substantially in its community.
Stephenson recalled a story she’s heard many times. When Bakken and his wife, Doris, began planning for retirement, they wanted to leave cold Midwest winters behind. They traversed the globe in search of a suitable spot to settle — the south of France, the Caribbean, Texas, California, Florida.
Then, they came to Hawaii Island. Their first stay was at the Kona Village Resort, Stephenson said, and one specific detail of the trip ended up making Bakken’s decision for him.
“Earl said many times he’d always take a briefcase of work wherever he went,” Stephenson remembered. “When they came to Kona Village Resort and he hadn’t opened his briefcase in two weeks, he knew they’d found the right place.”
Bakken began building a home, and relationships, immediately. After each phase of construction was complete, he’d invite the workers and their families to a luau on the property, Stephenson said.
It was a place that would come to be as special to Bakken as any other, maybe moreso, as evidenced by a quote he gave the North Hawaii News in the last story about Bakken West Hawaii Today ever published.
“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.”