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Mayo Clinic, CNN tussle over 'Escape' story

Duane Engebretson helps his stepdaughter Alyssa Gilderhus into their van during their "escape" from Saint Marys Hospital in February 2017.
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Mayo Clinic and CNN have been in a verbal shoving match this week over the cable news channel’s "Escape From Mayo Clinic" series, with neither side backing down from its version of how Alyssa Gilderhus and her family were treated during her 2017 hospital stay.

Gilderhus, a then-18-year-old high school senior from rural Sherburn, Minn., had lifesaving surgery for a ruptured brain aneurysm on Christmas Day 2016.

The family’s feelings toward Mayo soured during her two-month stay in rehabilitation at Saint Marys Hospital. Her mother ended up being banished from the hospital over what Mayo Clinic described as threatening behavior toward staff.

In addition, Mayo relayed reports it received alleging abusive behavior by the mother toward her daughter to authorities in Olmsted County and Martin County, Gilderhus’ home, and sought to have a "guardian" assigned to make decisions for Alyssa, whom the hospital staff had determined was a "vulnerable adult."

The family’s stay at Mayo Clinic ended in what amounted to an escape, captured on shaky video and aired as part of CNN’s report.


Mayo initially issued a generic response on Tuesday. But the Clinic heated up its rhetoric on Wednesday with a detailed and critical statement that challenged much of the core information in CNN’s report.

And now, CNN has responded in kind , with its own further details on its reporting work and how Mayo responded to reporters’ inquiries. The network noted that Mayo did not point out any facts CNN got wrong, and that CNN has not corrected or otherwise changed its initial report.

Fighting back

Spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said that after Tuesday, clinic administration was "begged" by staff, trustees, donors and others to fight back in stronger terms against the critical stories.

That spurred what she described as "the unusual and extreme action" of Mayo Clinic attacking CNN and its reporting.

"While we knew the reporter was focused on a pre-determined narrative, the information we provided should have helped them see that their premise was inaccurate," wrote Chris Gade, chairman of the Mayo Clinic Department of Public Affairs, on Wednesday. "Instead they (CNN) chose to ignore that information. We were shocked and deeply saddened by the wholly inaccurate and incomplete reporting that was published."

CNN pushed back on Friday with a response that included comments taken from Mayo Clinic officials in a four-hour, "off the record" meeting with the CNN news team, plus a series of email exchanges between the clinic staff and the news network.

"On Wednesday, Mayo officials themselves made parts of this meeting public by putting out a press release stating that CNN failed to investigate or include the information provided by Mayo, knowing that Mayo itself was the one who precluded CNN from reporting the information," wrote CNN.


Among other issues, CNN stated,"Mayo has continued to focus on what officials perceive as inappropriate behavior by Alyssa’s mother, instead of on the allegations that Alyssa’s rights as a patient had been violated. Mayo has not explained why a mother’s allegedly inappropriate behavior would impact the rights of an adult patient.

"While Mayo has said that Alyssa has been their top concern, Alyssa says she was treated as an ‘object’ by Mayo and that their attacks on CNN’s story have traumatized her even more."

After leaving Mayo Clinic, the young woman was checked out by Sanford Health in South Dakota and sent home to recuperate. Her family says she is fully recovered, other than headaches and some short-term memory loss. She is attending college as a freshman in the fall.

‘It’s just terribly complicated’

While this kind of exchange with a news organization is unusual for Mayo Clinic, one health media expert says stories like this often spur differences of opinion.

"If I had to sum it all up, these issues are always more complicated than they seem. It’s very frustrating, because having the truth revealed can really be in the public interest, but sometimes it’s not possible, at least immediately," said Joann Ellison Rodgers, an award-winning science journalist and former Johns Hopkins Medicine communication representative.

Rodgers said journalists work hard to tell the story accurately, though there are a lot of factors that can be difficult to nail down.

"When you are dealing with human lives, you are dealing with families who have deep feelings. When you’re dealing with institutions, they try very hard to protect patient privacy and do their best for a patient. It’s just terribly complicated," she said.


On factor in the case was the "off-the-record" meeting in March, in which Mayo aimed to provide background about the case and possibly spur CNN to drop the story.

"Yes, we did hope that CNN would not do the story. We didn’t think it was in her best interest. … We wanted to be truthful. We didn’t want the patient to be on display," Plumbo said.

CNN opened the doors Friday to what was said at that meeting, after receiving permission from the patient and after Mayo Clinic started discussing it publicly.

"After we published our series, Mayo revealed part of what was discussed in our meeting to a journalist from Minnesota Public Radio to produce, as Mayo CEO John Noseworthy wrote to Mayo trustees, a story that was ‘expected to address Mayo’s commitment in caring and protecting the patient,’" wrote CNN on Friday.

CNN reported that Mayo Clinic officials "made factual mistakes and shocking comments," during the meeting.

Those mistakes and comments included denying that Alyssa and her family requested her transfer, denying a letter from an attorney was sent to the clinic and then mocking the person who sent the letter.

Here is how CNN reported that discussion:

"’The lawyer letter wasn’t official,’" said Dr. Robert Cima, who, as chair of the Rochester Hospital Practice, serves as the hospital’s medical director.

CNN asked why they didn’t consider the letter from (Karie) Rego, ‘official.’

The staffers laughed.

‘You should call her a ‘lawyer,’’ Cima said, making air quotes around the word "lawyer."

Some regrets

Despite the hospital’s repeated statements that the patient was treated appropriately, CNN says one Mayo Clinic executive expressed regret about how the situation was handled.

"Ken Ackerman, administrator of Saint Marys Hospital, Mayo Clinic, said at the meeting that he wished the doctors treating Alyssa had come to him sooner as the conflicts with the family were escalating.

"‘I have regrets that that Bob (Dr. Robert Cima, Saint Marys Hospital’s medical director) and I were not brought in earlier,’ he said. ‘A third party could have de-escalated the tension,’" according to CNN’s report.

CNN also questioned Mayo Clinic’s understanding of the use of a hospital ethics committee.

On Friday, Plumbo said the situation with the Gilderhus family never involved an "ethical question."

There are many other aspects of the story that CNN and Mayo Clinic dispute. Both sides stand by their claims that they made no mistakes and the errors were made by the other organization.

Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Charles Harper wrote, "Mayo Clinic firmly stands behind our statements regarding care of this patient and our interactions with CNN. Our thorough, internal review determined that the care team’s actions, in addition to being lifesaving, were true to Mayo’s primary value and we fully support the actions of our staff."

When asked about the reporting process that CNN followed to tell the story, CNN Public Relations Director Neel Khairzada responded, "Throughout the 17 months the reporters had regular meetings with editors to discuss all aspects of the reporting. The reporting went through CNN’s vigorous review process."

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