Radio icon sings praises of Minnesota town to lure doctors
■ With a song from his heart, humorist Garrison Keillor may help a small town in Minnesota find enough doctors to keep its clinic open.
By Damon Adams — Posted June 11, 2007
The loons are calling, the fish are biting and the hammock is waiting. Some folks say this is paradise. On the map, it's called International Falls, Minn.
The tiny northern town of 6,300 on the Canadian border has plenty of scenic beauty, boating, hiking and hunting. What it doesn't have is enough physicians. A shortage threatens to close the town's clinic, the only one within 20 miles.
Two years of conventional advertising failed to recruit new doctors, so local leaders decided to try a different approach. Maybe a song about the virtues of their community would attract the medical crowd. And what better troubadour than Minnesota's native son and beloved ambassador of the airwaves, Garrison Keillor?
Keillor agreed, penned the tune himself and crooned it on his Minnesota-based show, "A Prairie Home Companion," which reaches about 4.3 million listeners on 580 public radio stations.
Who could resist?
Since the song appeared on Keillor's April 14 program, the Duluth Clinic in International Falls has been peppered with about 15 responses from physicians.
"One doctor in New York said he, his wife and his dog could get here in a New York minute," clinic administrator Sheila Hart said.
The clinic is checking references on another candidate and may bring in the doctor for an interview this month.
"The song really kind of struck a chord. It's got some people talking about us," said Brian Graff, vice president of marketing and public relations for SMDC Health System, which runs the seven-doctor clinic.
International Falls needs four more physicians: one surgeon and three family physicians, preferably ones who deliver babies. But it's not easy to sell outsiders on a place known as the "Icebox of the Nation."
More than five feet of snow falls during winter, typically covering the ground from November to March. January temperatures reach highs in the teens, lows in minus digits. The lakes don't thaw until mid-April.
"The lakes freeze solid enough you can drive pickup trucks on them," Hart said.
Spring and summer bring a more temperate climate.
"We do remind people that the icebox warms up in the spring," City Administrator Rod Otterness said.
When recruiting efforts turned up nary a nibble, town leaders this winter turned to Keillor, who had spent time on their Rainy Lake.
"A lot of us are familiar with him because we've listened to him all our lives," said Doug Johnson, MD, a family physician at the Duluth Clinic who went to the show's broadcast with his wife for their anniversary.
Otterness added: "We figure if we have Garrison Keillor on our side, we've got a leg up on our competition."
Locals sent Keillor a song to play on his show and a letter from the mayor asking for the humorist's help to find a physician not afraid to use leeches. A few weeks later, Keillor offered to help and crafted his own tune.
For the big moment, he had Mayor Shawn Mason on his program via phone.
"We are looking for some folks who really enjoy a four-season paradise," said Mason, drawing chuckles from the studio audience. "Guys and gals of that profession who like to get off work at 5 o'clock and be on their dock by 5:20, with their feet in the water and a fishing pole and a cold beer."
Keillor's response: "Well, it's not for everyone. It's not for the timid, but it may be there for somebody who is listening to our show right now."
Then he sang.
"Most of us who've lived here all our lives, it brought a little tear to our eyes," said Dr. Johnson, who has practiced in town for 30 years. "Something's going to come from it."
The ode to International Falls lives on: Interested physicians can hear it on the clinic's Web site (link). Local folks hope someone gives it a listen, then gives them a chance.
"It's a very special quality of life here," Mason said as she touted fishing and reading in a hammock as among the area's amenities. "But then maybe I'm biased because I'm the mayor."