The physical sciences concern themselves with nature. They are interested in sorting out why the cosmos and our small corner of it work the way they do. The social sciences are about the business of figuring out human nature. With great respect to physicists, chemists and biologists, I think the folks trying to figure out what makes people tick have a tougher job. There are no formulae, no great laws to rely upon.
Dr. George Mann has figured out one part of the puzzle. Addiction. He is credited with coming up with “The Minnesota Model.” It is used everywhere from Lincoln, Neb., to Leipzig, Germany, to help people recover. I have no way of knowing the exact figures, and certainly Dr. Mann is not keeping score, but the method he developed has, very likely, saved millions of lives. A good portion of those millions has never heard of George Mann.
I went over to his Oak Park Heights home to see him last week. He’s not doing well. The doctors at St. John’s Hospital sent him home with a diagnosis of two fatal diseases and a prognosis of about two weeks to live. Two hospital beds sit side-by-side. Dr. Mann is in one of them, and much of the time, his wife of more than 60 years, curls up in the one next to him. The arrangement may continue indefinitely. Dr. Mann has already proved the doctor’s prognosis of two weeks wrong. As a medical doctor, he knows, however, the doctors are right about his fatal illnesses.
George tells me that his wife, Marion, has been his rock. He’s not talking only about recent history. She has been beside him as they both worked to save people who had given up on themselves — people who saw no hope, no future. The Minnesota Model wouldn’t exist, in fact, had it not been for Marion. She was George’s first alcoholic.
Model would not exist without Marion
George and Marion were married after World War II. It didn’t take long for Dr. Mann to notice things weren’t exactly right with his wife. He took her to every kind of doctor he could find. Not one of them could identify the cause of her condition. So, the husband became the attending physician. He studied and observed and came to the conclusion his wife was an alcoholic. The old-fashioned, day-at-a-time approach was indicated. It worked.
Then, one day, he heard a lecture by Marty Mann (no relation), the first chairperson of the National Council on Alcoholism and the first woman member of Alcoholics Anonymous. She told her audience of physicians that their duty was to bring healing to the suffering, but they had turned their backs on an entire population of people who needed their help: alcoholics.
That gave George an idea. What if the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous were combined with medical knowledge? What if recovery could be initiated in hospitals? Hadn’t the American Medical Association recognized in 1953 that alcoholism was an ultimately fatal, but treatable disease? The Minnesota Model was conceived that night. But it wouldn’t be born until a hospital was willing to give it a try.
Dr. Mann met with his boss at St. Mary’s Hospital, Sister Mary Madonna Ashton. She’d been at the lecture, too. He asked her what they were going to do about the challenge. George remembered, “Sister Mary Madonna said there was an old part of the hospital with 16 beds that was kind of a wreck, but I could have that if I wanted.”
George said he walked out of the meeting, leaned against the wall and said to himself, “Now what.”
Enter Vern Johnson
Down the road, a recovering Episcopal priest named Vern Johnson, along with Wheelock Whitney, had started the Johnson Institute to train people to understand and treat alcoholism. George told me, “I called Vern, and said, ‘Do you have some recovering alcoholics over there who could come help me at St. Mary’s? We can call them ‘counselors.’ “
The Minnesota Model owes a lot of its success to Vern Johnson. He not only provided the “counselors,” but also gave recovery a completely different starting point. Tradition held that alcoholics had to hit bottom before they would be amenable to treatment. Vern thought that was hogwash. George said, “Vern believed that you didn’t have to lose everything. He believed in ‘intervention.’ ” Vern coined a term, changed recovery forever, and now you can watch interventions on TV.
It wasn’t long before hospital-based treatment for chemical dependency took off. More and more doctors were buying the disease concept, more and more people were recovering their lives, and insurance companies were picking up the tab. That encouraged more hospitals to begin treatment programs. It lasted until insurance companies began to meddle. They meddled so much that hospitals, after a while, gave up and closed down their treatment centers.
Dr. Mann didn’t give up. He found Sen. Paul Wellstone, and on this subject became his mentor. Wellstone began fighting in the halls of Congress for what is now known as “parity.” He wanted insurance companies to cover mental health problems the same way they cover a ruptured appendix. Wellstone’s personal fight to get a parity law enacted died with him in a plane crash. But Rep. Jim Ramstad picked up the standard before it touched the ground.
Ramstad made it his mission to get the parity law through Congress and signed by the president. Ramstad knew firsthand about alcoholism. And George Mann took him under his wing. It would be the second time he had done that. Thirty years ago Jim walked into St. Mary’s Hospital. He was an alcoholic and he needed help. “Dr. Mann and Marion met me at the door. I cried like a baby.”
George Mann told me from his bed, “I love Jim Ramstad.” He meant it to be taken literally. When I asked the congressman what he thought of Dr. Mann, his voice clouded. “He was there for me in 1981. He has been there for, literally, thousands of suffering alcoholics and addicts. He is a legend.”
Ramstad made parity his mission. It took years, but it has become the law of the land. Not long after it passed, Ramstad decided not to run for re-election. It is probably just me, but it seems that he’d still be there if the president of the United States hadn’t signed that bill.
Dr. Mann still didn’t quit. He helped start a new kind of treatment center called The Retreat. It makes recovery affordable. “And,” he said, “we don’t have to fool with insurance companies or the government.”
From his bed, at home, in Oak Park Heights, his wife by his side, Dr. George Mann can see the end. I hope he can also see the grateful faces of the people whose lives he helped redeem. As I was leaving, he said, “Recovering people? You’ll never meet a more grateful bunch.”
It’s true. Thank you, George.