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50 years, 5 ladies, a gold mine of Mayo Clinic history

"Do you remember...?" It's hard to say how many times that question was askedlast week when five former Mayo Clinic employees sat down together to swap stories and memories for the first time in 50 years.

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Five former Mayo Clinic surgical recorders gathered Thursday to reminisce about their work. They are, from left, Janice Owens, Carol Dowe, Mary Lou Imm, Marjorie Block and Sharon Siem.
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"Do you remember...?"

It’s hard to say how many times that question was asked last week when five former Mayo Clinic employees sat down together to swap stories and memories for the first time in 50 years.

They met in the 1960s when all five worked at the clinic as surgical recorders, updating medical records for patients.

"It was a fast-paced job," said Janice Owens, of Spring Valley. She worked as a surgical recorder at Saint Marys Hospital from 1951 until her retirement in 1996.

Their job, she explained, was to come along after surgeries and collect the plastic envelope containing the patient’s medical history. They would follow the doctor on his way to his next appointment as he dictated the results of the operation. Later, they would type up surgical reports and file them with as many as seven different departments of the hospital.

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"We’d be walking down the hall with this clipboard, walking fast and trying to write while the doctor was speaking," recalled Sharon Siem. She worked at Methodist Hospital between 1962 and 1966.

They would take their notes in shorthand, Siem said, and transcribe them before typing up reports on manual typewriters to add to patients’ records. She remembers it being difficult to be accurate sometimes, especially when the doctors talked fast.

"You had to ask them to repeat something," she said, "and you’d better not ask too many times."

Carol Dowe, originally of Decorah, Iowa, and now living in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, worked from 1962 to 1964 as a "float" between Saint Marys and Methodist hospitals. She said the speed at which the recorders had to work was the most demanding part of the job.

"We had to write it so fast," she said. To get a job, they had to be able to take shorthand at a minimum of 160 words per minute and type accurately at 60 words per minute.

"You had to just be able to jump up and perform right away," Dowe said.

About a half dozen women at a time would be doing recording work at the Saint Marys and Methodist hospitals. Their day, which might start as early as 7:30 a.m., involved a to-and-fro flurry of activity between operating rooms and their typewriters. Each recorder would be assigned a dozen or more cases per day and would have to take down the results of the surgery and type up the report before the end of the day.

"We didn’t have a lunch break, we ate at our desks," Owens said. "And if you had something interesting, a doctor might take your cookie or something."

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Despite, or maybe because of, the demands of their job, the surgical recording staff were a close-knit group.

On Thursday, from their corner table at the Canadian Honker Restaurant, they spoke fondly of the quirks of the doctors they used to work with and of former coworkers they hadn’t heard from in years.

One of the former supervisors, Marjorie Block, joined them at the informal reunion. Block, who lives in Rochester, worked as a recorder and later a supervisor at the Saint Marys and Methodist hospitals from 1944 to 1989.

"I could always count on her to send cards when anyone in my family was sick," Owens said.

"She was the best," Dowe agreed. "You know how supervisors can be mean, but she would always help us if we couldn’t read our shorthand."

Also at the reunion was Mary Lou Imm, also of Rochester. She worked at Saint Marys Hospital from 1953 to 1996.

Although a few of the women had maintained correspondence or met occasionally since their retirements from Mayo Clinic, Thursday was the first time they had all been together in nearly 50 years. Dowe was the force behind bringing the five of them together again, and she said she’s already mentally planning another reunion that would include other recorders who still live in the area.

Although surgical recording was key before the turn of the century, technology has nearly rendered the profession obsolete. In April, Mayo offered 400 surgical recorders, known today as medical transcriptionists, alternative career options as the clinic looked for ways to phase out the position.

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But during the reunion, no one spent much time contemplating how much the work has changed in the last 50 years. They were far too busy remembering the people, places and procedures that filled their days back when they still walked the halls and took dictation from some of Mayo’s most distinguished doctors.

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