Dr. George Mann: a redeemer of lives

Dr. George Mann: a redeemer of lives
Courtesy of The Retreat
Conceiving the Minnesota Model is only a part of what Dr. George Mann has done to effectively fight addiction.

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.

Jim Ramstad
Jim Ramstad

Ramstad’s mission
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.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 02/22/2011 - 09:51 am.

    the talk-therapy-based model has saved many people. There’s also a biochemical model (combined with therapy and AA) that’s very effective (in Mpls., Health Recovery Center). It hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

  2. Submitted by Dave Bartholomay on 02/22/2011 - 10:04 am.

    Thank you for a well written story about a remarkable man!

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/22/2011 - 10:22 am.

    Here’s a fact many people ought to know about CD treatment: 60% of those completing treatment relapse within 12 months. Over 90% relapse within 10 years. If you’re in treatment, 7 out of ten of the people there have been through treatment before.

    It’s great that some lives are saved, but it’s always amazed me that a treatment approach with such a dismal success record is so celebrated.

  4. Submitted by Deborah Irestone on 02/22/2011 - 11:32 am.

    paul: i was appalled by your statistics and tried to find something to back them up. although i believe anytime one person is helped through any of these treatments, this is a good thing, i would hope that your 60% and 90% quotes are not the real facts. i have known many people that are in recovery, and have know some who have lost their fight to win recovery. i am certain i know more of the first group than the second group.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/22/2011 - 11:49 am.

    Paul: I would add to Deborah’s comment that, considering the temptations those recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs face, many may need ongoing support from someone like an AA Sponsor who becomes the go-to person, day or night, that the recovering addict can call.

  6. Submitted by gregory merkel on 02/22/2011 - 11:59 am.

    I believe it was Dan Anderson who brought what became the Minnesota model for treatment from his position as a Social Worker at Willmar State hospital back in the mid 1950’s

  7. Submitted by Howard Salute on 02/22/2011 - 12:22 pm.

    Great story Don. I think information like this helps all of us understand addiction better. Once we understand addiction is a disease we can become more compassionate toward those suffering from the disease. Unfortunately there is no pill that can be taken to cure this disease. It requires learning to live a new lifestyle. And relapse is part of recovery. It is through mistakes and failure that success is found.

  8. Submitted by barry bonoff on 02/22/2011 - 12:38 pm.

    This was my first look at Don Shelby in MN Post. It is great write. Great subject. Nice going. bb

  9. Submitted by Fluffy Rabinowitz on 02/22/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    Don, it is my understanding that ‘The Retreat’ is not a licensed CD facility with the State of Minnesota. Also, this facility is facing a 1 million dollar clawback from a Petters’ donation; they might want to consider working with those ” meddling insurance companies.”

    Health Recovery Center in Mpls which has a long history of bio-chemical replacement has a much better sobriety rate than any other CD provider in the metro area.

  10. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 02/22/2011 - 01:51 pm.

    you’re right. there is no pill that can be taken to cure. that’s why I mentioned AA and support. relapse is sometimes a part of recovery…not always. but CD does have biochemical aspects that should be addressed. a better approach than telling a recovering alcoholic with cravings to eat a candy bar…

  11. Submitted by Luke Soiseth on 02/22/2011 - 04:12 pm.

    We spend so much time thinking about, reading about, writing about and wondering about all the problems in the world, it feels good to read an article about solutions, successes and the people behind them. Thank you for a great article.

  12. Submitted by Bill Sorem on 02/22/2011 - 08:35 pm.

    I’m one of thousands that owe our lives to George Mann and Vern Johnson. Thirty eight years ago I encountered George and my life was forever changed and extended. He’s one of our real Minnesota heroes.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/22/2011 - 11:29 pm.

    Deborah and Bernice,

    I used to work in the field. The stats I point to are standard observations that have been remarkably stable over time.

    This is just one citation:

    Relapse rates for addictive diseases usually are in the range of 50% to 90%; however, these rates vary by definition of relapse, severity of addiction, which drug of addiction, length of treatment, and elapsed time from treatment discharge to assessment, as well as other factors.


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